SWAMP’s New Bioassessment Website: A resource for freshwater monitoring and conservation

Winter 2015 Ecesis, Volume 25, Issue 4

CSCI Scores interactive map on the SWAMP Bioassessment website. 

CSCI Scores interactive map on the SWAMP Bioassessment website. 

The Surface Water Ambient Monitoring Program (SWAMP) at the State Water Resources Control Board began conducting bioassessment in 2000 as a foundation for directly assessing the biological condition of California’s perennial, wadeable streams and rivers. Now a cornerstone of reporting required by section 305b of the Clean Water Act, the bioassessment program is also critical in evaluating which stressors are most associated with degraded biological condition, in prioritizing streams for remediation and protection efforts, and in evaluating the effects of climate change and drought on our valuable, vulnerable freshwater resources. Benthic macroinvertebrates (BMIs) have been the primary indicator used for conducting bioassessments in the state, but more recently SWAMP began integrating and developing tools for conducting bioassessments using benthic algae as a second indicator. Over the years, the need has arisen for a new website which better organizes and publicizes the program’s tools and resources. SWAMP released the first version of its new website to the public in the summer of 2015 and presented the website at the annual California Aquatic Bioassessment Workgroup. The website is hosted on the State Water Board website.

SWAMP has developed a variety of tools for use in bioassessment, including indices for interpreting stream health based on biological data, taxonomic resources for identifying BMIs and benthic algae, and standard operating procedures for conducting field sampling and sample processing in the laboratory. These tools are central to SWAMP’s bioassessment program and are a main feature of the new website. All resources are targeted at local, state and federal organizations who wish to integrate bioassessment into their own evaluations of stream health based on the organisms living within it. The website is organized into the following six sections:

Statewide Bioassessment Program

This section provides an overview of SWAMP’s statewide bioassessment program including background information on the Perennial Streams Assessment (PSA) and Reference Condition Management Program (RCMP). The PSA is SWAMP’s ongoing probabilistic survey of ecological condition of perennial streams and rivers in the state, and the RCMP is devoted to establishing reference conditions; that is, the biological condition expected when human disturbance in the environment is absent or minimal. This section further highlights the program’s collaborative efforts and its contributions to various state efforts and initiatives. 

Data and Interpretive Tools

The California Stream Condition Index (CSCI) is a new biological scoring tool, finalized in 2015, that helps aquatic resource managers translate complex data about BMIs found living in a stream into an overall measure of stream health. Unlike previous indices of biological integrity (IBIs), which were applicable only on a regional basis, the CSCI is applicable statewide because it better accounts for a much wider range of natural variability and provides equivalent scoring thresholds in all regions of the state. The new website offers various resources on the CSCI, including a fact sheet, an interim guidance document for manually calculating the CSCI (SWAMP’s future plan is to have a web-based automated CSCI calculation tool), and the CSCI Scores map. The CSCI Scores map is an ArcGIS Online product that displays the 1,985 bioassessment sites statewide that have been scored with the CSCI. The scores displayed on the map will be updated regularly, and new features will be added over time. 

Taxonomic Resources

Many tools are available for use in identifying BMIs and benthic algae. For example, Bugs to Go—California Digital Reference Collection of Freshwater Benthic Macroinvertebrate Families, is a PDF guide created by the SWAMP Clean Water Team that is fully navigable by mobile devices and can be used to identify organisms in the field. Algal taxonomic resources include links to two online tools for looking up soft-bodied algal and diatom taxa recorded in the state. Additional taxonomic resources include standard forms for logging samples into the SWAMP database, worksheets for subsampling and sorting, and procedure forms for internal quality control of taxonomic identifications. 

Standard Operating Procedures

Standardization of field and laboratory protocols has been central to the development of SWAMP’s bioassessment program, and sampling must be conducted according to standard operating procedures (SOPs) for data to be SWAMP-comparable. Separate SOPs are available for conducting bioassessment in different waterbody types (e.g., streams and rivers, wetlands) and for processing and identifying BMI and algae samples in the laboratory. Additional supporting tools include training videos, webinars, memos, and standardized field data sheets. 

Training, Field QA, and Collection Permit

SWAMP has diverse bioassessment training resources, including the College of Bioassessment, a series of courses offered by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife and the State Water Board’s Training Academy. The courses provide students with a background on stream ecology, sampling design, taxonomic identification of BMIs, and data analysis based on SWAMP’s bioassessment SOPs. In addition, anyone wanting to stay current with bioassessment activities is encouraged to attend the annual California Aquatic Bioassessment Workgroup (CABW) meeting. Registration information for the CABW is posted in this section, alongside presentations and videos from past CABW meetings. 

Reports and Publications

This section provides links to a collection of journal publications, technical reports, management memos, and fact sheets that document the scientific basis and primary results of SWAMP’s work in bioassessment. Publications and technical reports are targeted at a professional scientific audience, whereas management memos and fact sheets are targeted at resource managers and the general public. 

SWAMP is looking to grow the website based on user feedback. Planned additions, based on feedback thus far, include guidance on how to query bioassessment data from the California Environmental Data Exchange Network (CEDEN) database, information and resources about bioassessment related to climate change, more interactive data displays and maps, and better search functionality. As the website continues to grow, SWAMP staff will work continually to ensure that the most up-to-date information and tools are available and to improve the website’s usability. 

SWAMP encourages SERCAL members to visit the new website, explore the resources available, and submit their feedback. Please send all comments to Michelle Tang, Environmental Scientist with the SWAMP Unit at the State Water Resources Control Board. She may be contacted via 916.341.5504 or Michelle.Tang@Waterboards.ca.gov. — by Michelle Tang, Andrew Rehn, Ph.D, and Calvin Yang