Journal: What Bugs Can Tell Us About the Health of Our Environment

Adventure |

Words by Katie Boué. Photos by Kyle Meck.

Storytelling has become the backbone of the outdoor community. It’s how we share our summit successes and backcountry failures, where we glean inspiration for the next big trip. There’s an abundance of adventure, no doubt — but where would our public lands playtime be without a foundation of science? Without the naturalists who teach us the names of those songbirds swooping overhead? Those who undertake the painstaking processes of measuring pH, reading the health of ecosystems, and protecting the delicate balance that keeps wilderness wild?


“I headed into the Wasatch backcountry to learn why science is the true backbone of the outdoor community.”


I headed into the Wasatch backcountry with photographer Kyle Meck and field water scientists Steve Stehl and Sam Taylor to learn why science is the true backbone of the outdoor community. Our sights were set on the most precious resource in the canyons: watersheds.


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If you ask Salt Lake County’s watershed planning and restoration team, they’ll tell you that a watershed is “the area of land that drains to a particular body of water, such as a stream, river, lake or ocean.”  Here in Salt Lake, that basically means the entire cirque of mountains and canyons surrounding the valley from City Creek to Little Cottonwood and beyond. On this particular morning our ragtag crew totted our buckets and nets to the end of the road up Mill Creek.


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I skipped along behind the scientists on the Little Water Trail, twirling my tall net and wondering what type of critters I would met. We were there to study the health of our community’s natural spaces, from the backcountry to the urban landscape. As we plodded our way towards a suitable spot to muck around, Steve and Sam introduced us to what healthiness means to these ecosystems.

Scientists can read the pulse of any given slice of watershed by observing clues, like the living ones you might find clinging to the underside of underwater stones. As Sam reached into the water and fished out a large flat rock, I learned who the real storytellers here were: bugs. Their presence can tell a narrative about the stream’s oxygen levels, pH, water temperatures, and landscape factors.


“Is this what happens when the natural world collides with human development?”


On the underbelly of a creek stone, you’ll find a neighborhood. Depending on the quality of water, bedrock inhabitants range from pouch snails to caddisfly larvae tucked away in stone casings. To better explore the diversity of macro invertebrates present at a site, we used fine nets to catch the bugs in a riffle. Then, we’d deposit it all in a wet bucket, and dig around to see what species we could identify. At the top of the Little Water trail, up Porter Fork, and down at the trailhead for Mt. Aire, we found plentiful populations of caddisfly in various forms, worms, spiders, and even a snake. The streams felt rich, hospitable, healthy.


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Leaving the canyon, we returned to the city. Our final stop was another site along the 19.7 miles of Mill Creek, but this time, we were next to an abandoned department store. We had left the wilderness and reentered the urban jungle — and it smelled like it. The stream ran under concrete bridges and through manmade channels. I barely wanted to reach my hand underwater to inspect these rocks. On the underside, we found a very different scene: nothing but skuds, flatworms, and snails. Thick algae blooms flourished in this oxygen-starved environment. Whoa. Is this what happens when the natural world collides with human development?


“We have a big influence on whether a stream is full of richness or just skuds.”


Every time our boots hit the trails, we have a choice. We choose whether to be good stewards of the land, or to take advantage of these natural gifts. The health of our watersheds tell a story, and we have a big influence on whether a stream is full of richness or just skuds. How can you be a better outdoorist when it comes to protecting water? Here are a few ideas:


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  • Respect the watershed regulations. Heed posted signage in places with swimming or dog restrictions.
  • Volunteer. Spend a day out on the trails doing erosion maintenance, donate your time to a local environmental organization, or just pick up a few pieces of trash the next time you go for a trail run. Every action counts.
  • Camp smart. According to Leave No Trace principles. Tents should stay at least 200 feet away from lakes and streams. Don’t use soap or any chemical products to wash dishes or bath.
  • There’s no ‘P’ in ‘Pool.’ And by pool, we mean trailside water sources. Always remember to pee and poo at least 200 feet away from any water. You might be drinking that water later.
  • Leave ecosystems intact. As tempting as it is to stack cairns, toss rocks, and build dams–don’t. You could be disturbing dozens of macro invertebrates and other tiny creatures. Tread lightly and respect the little locals.
  • Your home life affects the watersheds too. We can protect our beloved outdoor spaces in our own backyards too. Plant native landscaping, always pick up after your pet on walks, use a commercial carwash to keep chemicals out of streams, keep yard waste out of storm drains on your street.


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