The Washington Post

Monitoring water quality of local streams

While many of her peers have congressional internships or jobs that have kept them inside air conditioned office buildings, Kelsey Stafford has spent her summer working outdoors examining the environment of the nation’s capital.

As an intern with the National Park Service, Stafford has been monitoring the water quality of 10 streams along the George Washington Memorial Parkway. These streams, which include Spout Run in Arlington, feed into the Potomac River and ultimately affect the area’s drinking water.

Erik Oberg, who supervises Stafford, said the 12-week Student Conservation Association internship “introduces bright and enthusiastic young people to careers with the Park Service, while also empowering them to become the scientists of the future.”

Stafford and her colleague Michael Wills have braved the summer’s record-breaking heat to conduct regular testing on the water chemistry and biology of each stream. They have tested for chlorine, phosphorus and nitrates in the water and looked for the presence of dragonflies, freshwater clams, worms and crayfish, which serve as water quality, stream health, and environmental indicators. From these measurements, Stafford has been able to determine the pollution levels for each of the 10 streams.

“The organisms living in these streams are very sensitive. A slight change in chemical levels can have a drastic effect on the streams and organisms, and many people are unaware of this,” said Stafford.

Kelsey Stafford (National Park Service)

In addition, Stafford has conducted ecological habitat assessments on each stream. This includes examining the occurrence of bank erosion and the amount of algae and shade coverage.

The culmination of the research will be released this fall as part of an annual report distributed by the park service that will provide area residents with a water quality score ranging from one to 12 for each stream. Stafford said that “none of our streams are a one or a 12, but most have a score of three or four on average.”

She added that “one of the biggest challenges is the lack of public awareness about protecting the watersheds and how directly affected they are by what happens in people’s backyards.”

For example, Stafford said actions such as dumping chemicals down a drain or chlorinated pool water into a backyard can have huge effects on the aquatic life of these streams and on the area’s drinking water.

As a result, Stafford has made it a point to teach people she encounters during the field work about how they can be better stewards of these watersheds. She offers simple tips like using rain barrels on gutter downspouts and backyard rain gardens to help minimize storm runoff or using a gravel or paving stone base for a patio instead of solid cement to help reduce the amount of impervious surfaces in local watersheds.

For Stafford, the opportunity to do hands-on field research has been a highlight of her internship. After graduating from the Virginia Military Institute in 2009, she spent six months interning for the U.S. Forest Service in a remote section of Alaskan wilderness where she helped determine the best way to increase vegetation growth after the area was logged.

“I was really impressed with Kelsey’s work in Alaska. It is great having someone who has a foundation in field work anchoring the two-person team,” said Oberg. “She is also excellent at attention to detail, and this kind of work lends itself to having this skill – from the chemical water testing and ensuring accurate measurements to counting the 875th invertebrate in your net at the end of a nine-hour day.”

Stafford plans to pursue a career in research after her internship ends this month, and her experience with the National Park Service has her considering opportunities with the federal government since it will allow her to have a positive impact on the country.

“I feel so privileged to be a part a program leading the way in stream water quality monitoring for this National Capital Region Network, but making a difference in educating the public on how to preserve these resources not only in the backyard of our nation’s capital, but across our entire country,” she said.

This article was jointly prepared by the Partnership for Public Service, a group seeking to enhance the performance of the federal government, and Go to to read about other federal workers who are making a difference.

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