A highly advanced and incredibly delicate water monitoring device is placed gingerly in a stream in Chickasaw Country by technician Cynthia Highfield.
ADA, OKLAHOMA — Brent Shields is a physician of sorts. He checks the health of streams and rivers as they flow through the Chickasaw Nation.
Shields is a Chickasaw Nation Environmental Services technician. He goes about his daily rounds and shares information he gathers with state and federal environmental agencies.
“We monitor streams year-round,” Shields said. “It’s hot during the summer and cold during the winter. We have to be careful of snakes, poison ivy and hypothermia.”
For the past 10 years, technicians have monitored creeks, streams and rivers within the Chickasaw Nation. Shields and his fellow technicians are not required by any state or federal agency to conduct water quality testing. They complete regular testing because the Chickasaw Nation desires its streams and rivers stay healthy and vibrant. The tribe utilizes grants provided through the federal Clean Water Act to assist it in being responsible stewards of its natural resources.
The tribal technicians closely monitor sites declared “impaired water systems” by the Oklahoma Department of Environmental Quality.
“’Impaired’ does not always mean bad or polluted,” environmental specialist Ambrie Johnson said. “Many of the streams are classified as impaired simply because there has been little or no data collected on them.”
Current monitoring sites include locations around Ada, Tishomingo and Sulphur. The rivers, streams and creeks are contained within two primary watersheds – Little Sandy and Clear Boggy.
“People are familiar with our Pennington Creek and the Blue River locations,” Shields said. “The other sites are in rural and more remote locations.”
Advanced equipment is used to gather samples measuring stream flow, temperature, pH balance, chloride and other data.
The team also uses equipment you might recognize from your garage or tool shed. Machetes and weed-eaters come in pretty handy, particularly during the growing season. Thermal waders and protective clothes ward off hypothermia and stave off trench foot.
In the hinterlands, a slip, fall, snake bite or injury can be life-threatening. More than once, the tribe’s monitoring team has experienced “can-you-hear-me-now” moments when weak cell tower signals make contact with the world non-existent.
“The hardest parts about water monitoring are the elements and locations,” Shields said. “In summer, the locations become overgrown. I often have to cut paths through the brush to get to streams. In August, heat exhaustion is a concern. On more than one occasion, I have had run-ins with cottonmouth snakes, both in and out of the water.”
Winter presents its own set of challenges.
“We monitor in cold weather as well,” Shields said. “Temperatures can be below freezing. We have to have proper cold weather equipment to stay dry and warm as we work in the water. It is a dangerous time of the year.”
Over the years, Chickasaw Nation water monitoring experts have consistently monitored 15 sites. Data collected will be used as baseline data for future generations to determine the overall health of the watersheds.
Chickasaw Nation Environmental Services has partnered with the Oklahoma Conservation Commission and the United States Geological Survey (USGS) to take water samples measuring water flow, chemistry and potentially harmful bacteria.
Technicians who make up the water program receive ongoing training and are certified by the Oklahoma Conservation Commission. The proper use of the latest testing equipment, sampling techniques and science are used for precise data collection.
Training includes web-based seminars, national conferences and hands-on training in the field. The training provides for improved data collection and information.
“We use a lot of the same equipment methods as the USGS and EPA,” Shields said. “We train with them and share information. We used to send our data to a private company for compilation. A few years ago, I was trained by the EPA to submit the data, which saves us a lot of money.”
Environmental stewardship is important to the Chickasaw Nation. Ongoing community endeavors like environmental camps, planting trees and sponsoring Earth Day celebrations are important. The actual testing of the resources and collection and interpretation of the data is vital.
It’s hard work. For environmental technicians working for Chickasaw Nation Environmental Services, stewardship means getting wet, breaking a sweat and braving extreme conditions.
Water monitoring part of Clean Water Act
Water monitoring is made possible by the federal Clean Water Act Section 106. Section 106 provides regulatory context and mandates for water quality monitoring and assessment programs conducted by the Chickasaw Nation Environmental Services Department.
“The Chickasaw Nation was one of the first tribal governments to conduct a watershed monitoring project within its lands,” Johnson said. “Our water monitoring grant allows the protection of public health and gives us an idea about water quality trends within the Nation. The information collected can now be used to compare samples if emerging ecological damage begins to occur or if we have a sudden emergency pollution event.”
The water monitoring program conducted by the Chickasaw Nation has specific goals. These include continued monitoring within EPA guidelines, reporting and regular training of personnel. In the future, community outreach will include water quality education for members of the community who reside within the 13-county territory of the Chickasaw Nation.
“The overall goal is to have high water quality within the Chickasaw Nation,” Johnson said. “We monitor so that water pollution can be controlled, or eliminated, within our jurisdictional boundaries.”