MCC Students Monitor Duck Creek Watershed

In a Michigan county defined by its abundant natural water resources, concerns about maintaining the quality of one of its primary streams – the Duck Creek Watershed spanning 22 square miles across northwest Muskegon County – involved two MCC students trekking its muddy banks with research equipment throughout the summer months.

From May through August, University of Michigan-bound Benancio Rodriguez, who just graduated with an MCC associate’s degree through the Early College of Newaygo County program, and Gabe Cerchiori, who currently attends MCC, carefully monitored the sediment flow weekly in Duck Lake’s two tributaries, Scholles Creek and Duck Creek.

Their research was supported by a $5,530 grant to the Duck Creek Watershed Assembly from the Community Foundation for Muskegon County’s Environmental Endowment Fund. The two worked under the guidance of Dr. Thomas Tisue, an adjunct MCC faculty member with extensive experience as a professor and researcher at Clemson University and the University of Chicago.

Students researches with Dr. Tisue in the MCC STEM laboratory

MCC instructor Thomas Tisue provides guidance to Benancio Rodriguez as he analyzes the Duck Creek water samples.

Tisue, who moved to the Duck Creek area 11 years ago, became involved with the Duck Creek Watershed Assembly (DCWA), a local organization which partnered with Grand Valley State University’s Annis Water Resources Institute, the Muskegon Conservation District, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, and Cardno JFNew to create a plan for managing the watershed.

While systematic studies of the watershed date back to the 1980s, those initial measurements used the rudimentary Secchi system of transparency, explained Tisue.

“It was named for an 19th century Italian scientist who developed a system for measuring water transparency by lowering a black-and-white sector disk into the water and observing how far down you could see it,” he added.

Tisue encouraged the DCWA to adopt more sophisticated statewide metrics available to them.

“It was about that same time – the late 1970s – that the state of Michigan started one of the first state-sponsored volunteer monitoring support organizations called the Michigan Clean Water Corps (MiCorps),” he explained. “We still use the MiCorps protocols. We put our statistics in the MiCorps database, which is a very handy feature. That means every volunteer group doesn’t have to establish their own database and worry about comparability. Also, MiCorps carries out training and provides quality assurance protocols.”

Rodriguez and Cerchiori, in measuring transported suspended sediment, employed procedures outlined in a new MiCorps pilot program.

“We’re using measurement methods that are really only appropriate for streams that you can wade safely,” said Tisue. “It’s a combination of measuring water discharge, that is the amount of water that flows past over a particular time, such as cubic meters a day, and at the same time, we’re taking water samples and measuring the amount of solid material suspended in the water. We want to get a handle on the total amount of solid material that’s being transported by the stream because we have some concerns in the lower part of the watershed about sediment accumulation. We’re trying to sort out what the sources of that material are and what the magnitude of the various sources are.”

With clipboards, rulers, sticks and a tennis ball (to measure water flow) in hand, the two students took intricate measurements weekly along the stream’s width and across pre-determined 100-foot sections.

“There was another point when we went into the lower branch of Duck Creek and checked the biodiversity to see what insects were there,” said Rodriguez. “We collected and sorted them.”

“Basically, it was a stream water quality assessment,” added Cerchiori. “We wanted to see which kind of organisms were living in the water. Some indicate higher water quality, some could live in slop.”

Researchers use SCUBA gear in Duck Lake

MCC student researchers use SCUBA gear to search Duck Lake for invasive species.

The students also donned SCUBA gear and went under water at Duck Lake to continue five-year-old surveys for early detection of unwanted invasive aquatic plants, such as hydrilla, curly-leaf pondweed, and starry stonewort, at boat launches and public beaches.

Along the creek, Rodriguez and Cerchiori conducted repeated flow measurement tests clocking the average speed that a tennis ball travelled from Point A to Point B along the same section of the creek.

Gathering water samples was just half of their weekly assignment. They then brought their containers to MCC’s newly remodeled STEM (science, technology, engineering and Math) laboratories for detailed analysis that would be documented in a final report.

“We filtered the water we collected through a glass fiber filter which collects all the sediment that was in the water and lets the water pass through its extremely small holes,” said Cerchiori. “We took those filters and put them in the oven to get rid of all the moisture. We pre-weighed them so we knew what they weighed before. Then we weighed them after so we knew how much sediment exists. With our water sample, we weighed that as well to know how much water we’re sampling.”

Both students expressed a familiarity with the probes from their MCC science courses on campus. Both also appreciated the hands-off approach Tisue employed during the summer work.

“He taught us the skills we needed, but then it was, ‘OK, this is what you guys should probably do today’ or ‘This is what I need done within the next couple of weeks,’” said Rodriguez. “He really left it to us to kind of do it ourselves.”

“Working with someone who is learning it with me, I thought that was the best part of the internship experience,” added Rodriguez, whose career interest lies in studying the human body from a biochemical perspective. His curiosity was initially peaked during his physiology class with MCC Professor Darren Mattone.

Rodriguez’s research experience at MCC is already paying dividends.

“I know I got into a program, called Michigan’s Research Community, at the University of Michigan because I was able to talk about the research I did with Professor (Greg) Marczak and Professor Mattone, and about how I’m  part of this internship.”

Cerchiori plans to pursue psychology but envisions himself volunteering in the future with Duck Creek Watershed Assembly.

Tisue praised the work of his two students and would love to find new student researchers from the MCC student ranks.

“The problem is raising the money to support them,” he explained. “My goal has been to find support sufficient so the students won’t have any out-of-pocket expenses.”

As for the future of the Duck Creek Watershed itself?

“There’s no evidence of any gross pollution,” said Tisue. “There definitely is runoff from people’s lawns and driveways and the roads that cross the creek. They all put anthropogenic materials into the stream that would not be there otherwise. But the cumulative impact so far has been minor as best we can tell from the measurements that have been made.”

“ (It) is a small watershed which, despite development pressures, has remained in relatively good condition along much of its length, and especially the undeveloped corridor that starts at Riley-Thompson Road and runs down really all the way to the mouth of the creek at Duck Lake. There is no development within that corridor within a significant proximity to the creek.”

Ideally, Tisue would like to see it remain that way in perpetuity with Muskegon Township selling conservation easements to The Land Conservancy of West Michigan, a legal entity that holds land in trust for purposes of conservation. In the meantime, he will continue his efforts with the Duck Creek Watershed Assembly and build upon the important research conducted by the two MCC students this year.