Holly Sisson and her daughter, Amelia, collect water in a turbidity tube during a recent Water Quality Monitoring Network training session on Signal Mountain. (Photo: Mary Beth Sutton)

Who hasn’t felt drawn to wade through the waters of a rushing mountain stream or rock-hop in a neighborhood creek while exploring for aquatic life?

Water has always called to humans in that way, and conservationists throughout history have attributed their love of the natural world to time spent exploring waterways as a child. However, in many communities today, waterways are no longer safe to touch, never mind swim in or explore.

In an effort to reclaim clean water in the Chattanooga area–to hear once again the laughter of children rising up from area streams and waterways–clean water advocates Mary Beth Sutton and Laura Keys have launched the Water Quality Monitoring Network, which offers free training sessions to teach volunteers how to test and monitor the health and quality of waterways in their own backyards.

“You can’t tell much about water simply by looking at it; most pollutants are invisible to our eyes,” Sutton, an environmental scientist and educator, said. “Our goals are to get community members interested in the health of waterways and train them how to take water samples in an effort to help regulators keep track of water quality in the area. Ultimately, we want kids to be able to play in the water without worrying about what’s in it.”

In Chattanooga, two main impacts on water quality in area streams are feces from leaking sewer systems and septic tanks and excessive sediment runoff from roads, construction and land that has been cleared.

Sutton is working both locally and globally to help communities take better care of their watersheds. She founded the Caribbean Student Environmental Alliance (Caribbean SEA) eight years ago to help Caribbean communities take better care of their water. Recently, she launched the Tennessee Student Environmental Alliance (TenneSEA), of which the Water Quality Monitoring Network is a part.

The Water Quality Monitoring Network’s first training session was held in January on Signal Mountain. Sixteen adults and children gathered to learn about the history of water pollution on the mountain and then headed out to Bee Branch, a stream located off Timberlinks Drive, to look for clues about water quality there.

“It is important for people to know what a healthy stream should look like and what clues to look for that might indicate if it is polluted,” Sutton said. “At Bee Branch, the group identified a fine layer of sediment coating the rocks, a result of erosion upstream, and bright green patches of algae on rocks, which indicates that nutrients from fertilizer or feces could be leaking into the waterway.”

The group was then given hands-on experience using water quality testing kits provided by sponsors of the program: Hamilton County Water Quality, the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation, Tennessee River Rescue and the town of Signal Mountain.

“We provide hands-on experience and kits to test for bacteria, nutrients and dissolved oxygen,” Sutton said. Once volunteers are trained, they can check out water quality testing kits from the Water Quality Monitoring Network as needed. Each test kit includes a turbidity tube, a chemical test kit and a bacteria test. Bacteria results take 24 hours to process, but all other results are immediate.

The group also learned how to take GPS coordinates at sampling locations so that results can be mapped on the TenneSEA website.

The Water Quality Monitoring Network has scheduled additional training sessions for Signal Mountain, South Chickamauga Creek watershed, North Chickamauga watershed and East Ridge. To register, visit their website.

“We believe that awareness inspires action,” Sutton said.

The organization is also launching an outdoor-themed thrift store, The Gear Closet, to raise funds to support their work. Donations of gently used outdoor apparel and gear are currently being accepted. To drop off items such as kayaks, canoes, life jackets, rock climbing gear, camping gear, sleds, etc., visit the following drop-off locations: Outdoor Chattanooga at Coolidge Park; Outdoor Chattanooga at Greenway Farm/North Chickamauga Creek Conservancy; Mountain Arts Community Center on Signal Mountain; and Leisure Time Dive, Ski and Travel Center on Brainerd Road.

Complete information is available here.

The Gear Closet will officially open at Outdoor Chattanooga’s Outdoor Expo and Gear Swap at Coolidge Park on Saturday, April 21, 2012.

To learn more about the Water Quality Monitoring Network or The Gear Shop, contact Mary Beth Sutton at 423-413-0471 or via email.

Jenni Frankenberg Veal enjoys writing about the natural world and exploration opportunities found within the southeastern United States, one of the most biologically and recreationally rich regions on earth. Visit her blog at www.YourOutdoorFamily.com.