March 2014
Youth Matters

4-H Extension Corner: Exploring Alabama’s Living Streams

  Etowah County 4-Hers help Mona Dominguez investigate a stream critter.

What lives in your favorite creek, stream or pond? Most of us would be quick to answer this question with minnows, bass, catfish or crawfish. All of these are good answers, and lots of times we go to the creek or pond with intentions of finding just these creatures. How would you feel if I told you there are benthic macroinvertebrates living in your water? For example, there are hellgrammites, dragonfly nymphs and cranefly larvae living on the bottom of creeks, streams and ponds.

4-Hers who were participating in water education sessions last summer were a little troubled when they first heard the news about macroinvertebrates in their water. Hellgrammites don’t exactly sound like good swimming buddies. However, the students quickly changed their minds when they learned the presence of macroinvertebrates can actually tell if a creek, stream or pond is healthy, and that these critters are pretty cool.

A 4-Her gets a magnified view of a macro-invertebrate.  

"Benthic" refers to living on the bottom of a water body, "macro" means large enough to see with the naked eye and "invertebrate" refers to animals without backbones. Some macros you may have heard of before include crawfish, clams and snails. Other lesser-known aquatic critters include the dragonfly and damselfly nymphs and caddisflies. Dragonflies and many other insects actually live most of their lives underwater before changing into the adults we see buzzing around.

Aquatic insects have different tolerances for water pollution. Some creatures, like the aquatic worm, can live in fairly polluted water. Others such as the stonefly larvae cannot live in polluted water. Basically, if you find more pollution-intolerant than pollution-tolerant macroinvertebrates, you can assume your water quality is fairly good.

Walker County 4-Hers research and identify their findings.  

"I learned that a dragonfly nymph doesn’t look anything like an adult dragonfly," said Hunter Watson, 10, a 4-Her from Etowah County. "I also learned the kinds of bugs in your water can help you tell if your water is clean or not."

Last summer, I was able to share my love for macroinvertebrates and protecting water quality with Alabama youth during several events, including the Walker County 4-H Summer Camp Lake Day and the Etowah County 4-H Nature Funshop.

By using games and fun activities, I taught students about water conservation and water pollution. They discussed different ways water gets polluted and what each of them could do to prevent pollution. They also talked about some of the characteristics making macroinvertebrates so interesting to study. For instance, caddisflies make beautiful casings out of twigs and pebbles found on the bottoms of creeks. Once the young people understood that macroinvertebrates are not scary, and are actually things we want to find in our creeks and ponds, they were anxious to explore. They practiced collection techniques using nets and buckets and then they were off to the races.

Once the 4-Hers collected enough insects, they used identification keys to classify each bug. They sorted the macros into different pollution tolerance groups and, as a result, were able to determine the water’s health.

"Through the stream biomonitoring activities, young people were able to see the diversity existing in Alabama’s streams as well as the impact of water quality on aquatic life. The youth were taught the basic principles of environmental stewardship and had fun learning by doing," said Michael Dillon, regional 4-H agent for Cherokee and Etowah counties.

The Alabama Water Watch Program ( has been teaching both adults and students how to determine water quality using macroinvertebrates as indicators for nearly 20 years. In fact, about 10 years ago, AWW worked with Auburn University faculty to develop a curriculum called "Exploring Alabama’s Living Streams" that is focused on water quality, stream ecology and macroinvertebrates. Most of the activities I used during the summer water activities were taken directly from EALS.

Left to right, a 4-Her discovers a tiny snail. 4-Hers learn to use a kick net to collect aquatic critters.  

Time and time again those who take students to the creek to explore for macroinvertebrates see them get excited about nature and science.

"Our day camp evaluations show unanimous top ratings for water day. Mona’s program guided the 4-Hers in a search for tiny creatures lurking in the mud and grasses. Youth then researched and identified what they had found. They were especially excited about the predators," added Rebecca Persons, an Extension agent in Walker County.

Not only do the 4-Hers have fun but evidence shows these creek adventures enhance their academic experience. One study showed Alabama students who were taught with the EALS curriculum, along with the Extension program Classroom in the Forest, over a 4-year period increased their Stanford Achievement Test scores from 50 percent to 70 percent (

In 2014, AWW hopes to offer more 4-Hers an opportunity to get out and explore their living streams. 4-H volunteers can play a big role in helping more youth have this great experience. After experiencing EALS, Extension Agent Dillon has decided to host an EALS workshop on April 11 and 12. It will give interested educators (including volunteers) an opportunity to learn to use the EALS curriculum.

"I want to host this workshop in Etowah County because the opportunity to equip the passionate teachers and volunteers of today to reach the leaders of tomorrow is invaluable. The hands-on activities provided through this training will enable educators to reach young people who otherwise might not have become involved with 4-H. Being blessed with abundant water resources in this region of Alabama, it is imperative local youth are prepared to be good stewards and understand the importance of it," said Dillon.

If you’d like to teach young people about water through macroinvertebrates, this is a great way to get started. You can find more details about this workshop by going to Several additional water education workshops are being planned for the coming months. Contact me for additional information at 334-844-4785 or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Mona Dominguez is a monitor coordinator and Water Education specialist for Alabama Water Watch and for ACES’ Alabama 4-H Water Resources Center.