The Ripple: Engaging as Citizen Scientists Along the River

Hilltown Families Citizen Scientists
4th Annual Assessment of the Westfield River

A few days ago a friend of mine, the talented Northfield potter Tom White, posted a Facebook picture of himself holding a wild King Salmon he caught in Pulaski, NY, on the Salmon River near Lake Erie.

That’s what 30 pounds of pure aquatic vitality looks like—and once upon a time our CT, Westfield and Deerfield rivers were teeming with their cousins, the Atlantic Salmon, that were declared extinct last year by the National Fish and Wildlife Service.

This past Friday, Hilltown Families Founder, Sienna Wildfield, and an energetic group of Hilltown Families citizen scientists and I conducted our fourth annual rapid biotic assessment of the Westfield River in West Chesterfield, and we marveled at how alive this beautiful watercourse is! Consistent with the two assessments we’ve done since hurricane Irene, we found that the populations of crab-like bugs has shrunken while the worm-types have increased (Compare assessments: 2011 & 2013).

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Though we would like to find a wide variety of river bugs, because biodiversity is a sure sign of ecological health, we did catch five types of the “most wanted” cold-water oxygen-loving bugs. They signaled that the Westfield River continues to enjoy “exceptional water quality,” the highest of EPA rankings. YAY!

What is missing from those rankings, though, are the big fish who eat these river bugs. This absence doesn’t trouble anybody who does not know what a truly healthy, living river is, but—thanks to the Facebook picture Tom posted—it does trouble me.

Every citizen scientist who does the RBAs learns that the algae-eating river bugs are the foundation of the river’s circle of life: a circle that goes from bug to minnow to crayfish to fish to heron, kingfisher, merganser, osprey and bald eagle, and fisher, otter, mink, raccoon and the creatures who eat all of these things.

The vitality that we witness and celebrate when we do the RBAs is real, and I do not intend to diminish it when I say that, without the presence of the big fish that eat them, we are missing the large picture. It’s almost like we are collecting bugs on the knee of an elephant, while never seeing the elephant—and thinking the knee is everything we can or need to know.

Our rivers should have giant fish in them. They don’t because of the dams that obstruct their passage. Propitiously enough, we are at a moment in history when many dams are in a state of disrepair and need to be deconstructed; other dams, such as those near industrial brownfields, no longer serve an economic purpose; and there is a real push now to ensure that the dams that will remain in service have fish ladders and elevators to minimize the destruction of life. FirstLight power company is, for example, trying to renew its license for the Turner’s Falls dams and the Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage project on the CT river, and you can follow the process here.

The Westfield, not the Connecticut, river is best suited for the return of the big fish because aside from West Springfield and Westfield, it does not lead to any other cities. Unlike the CT, it remains governed by a single state. From a management perspective, the city-laden multi-state CT river is very complex; the Westfield is much simpler. It is possible that, since there are only few dams blocking the passage of fish from the ocean to the highlands, we—or our children—might be able to catch 30 pound fish someday, and that instead of catching hatchery trout, they’ll catch wild ones (I’ll return to the subject of dam removals on the Westfield in a future post.).

The vitality that I found with Hilltown Families is a candle flame where a bonfire should be—but the most important thing is that the fire still burns. It has not been extinguished. From that candle a bonfire can, and with your mindfulness and support will, be built.


Kurt Heidinger, Ph.D. is the Executive Director of Biocitizen, non-profit school of field environmental philosophy, based in the Western MA Hilltown of Westhampton, MA where he lives with his family.  Biocitizen gives participants an opportunity to “think outside” and cultivate a joyous and empowering biocultural awareness of where we live and who we are. Check out Kurt’s monthly column, The Ripple, here on Hilltown Families on the 4th Monday of every month to hear his stories about rivers in our region. Make the world of rivers bigger than the world of pavement inside of you!

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