On a sunny March morning, more than 30 children and parents gathered at the Heritage Oaks Park in Los Altos for the Permanente Creek World Monitoring Challenge, co-sponsored by Acterra and GreenTown Los Altos. The children examined water chemistry and creek bugs to assess the health of Permanente Creek, which runs from the hills and through Los Altos on its way to the bay.
Joanne McFarlin, a senior ecologist at Acterra, engaged the children to demonstrate the mechanics of watersheds. What happens to fertilizer, pesticide, engine oil, trash, as well as animal poop when the rains come? They all run off the surrounding lands, down the storm drains and into the creek, out to the bay and ocean.
Testing for bugs at Permanente Creek
Children went through four stations down at the creek, checking pH, temperature, dissolved oxygen and turbidity. The creek water was cool and clear, slightly alkaline (as expected, draining hills rich in limestone), and with good dissolved oxygen for bugs and fish. These four basic water chemistry results looked good.
A second test was to look at the creek bugs of Permanente Creek. Some bugs tolerate pollution; they can be found in water of any quality. Others are sensitive to pollution, so they are only found in clean water. We found over a hundred creek bugs, and every bug was pollution tolerant.
The absence of pollution-sensitive bugs in Permanente Creek means there are contaminants stressing the creek bug population. Sources of pollution include discharges from the Lehigh Cement Plant and run off from streets and residential properties. We don’t know which pollutant is impairing the creek the most, and there’s little funding to find the root cause.
I volunteered to help children learn about science and our environment, and through the children, I learned more than I wanted on that sunny morning in March.
Written by Charley Pow for GreenTown Los Altos