Volunteer of the Week: Tom Winner, Rockland County Soil and Water Conservation District

People choose to volunteer for a variety of reasons. For some, it offers the chance to give something back to the community or make a difference to the people around them. For Tom Winner, it provided an opportunity to develop new skills and help the environment.

“I was involved with the Stream Bio-monitoring Program, where I did a visual assessment to look for trash or erosion on the banks and marked it down. I had a net and walked with it behind me and tried to kick up the rocks to free up the invertebrates, little things you can see with your eyes,” Winner told the Rockland County Ties.. “With the net, I scooped up as many invertebrates that I could find. I put one of each in a vial of alcohol so the experts could identify them. The greater the examples of invertebrates found, the better the quality of the water. I had a field guide to identify the critters, which was fun because it was all new learning. When ready, Mayflies come to the surface of the water and attracted insects to the water. The water in the Sparkill Creek was at a ripple, about six inches deep, and I had to wear wading boots. Waterways are monitored once a year because New York State wants to know the impact of civilization on streams in order to step in and take remedial action.”

“I have learned a lot about eels, which are extraordinary creatures,” he continued. “They’re all born in the Sargasso Sea, West of the Caribbean. It takes a year for the little glass eels to migrate to Maine for fresh water. They come up the Hudson River and hang out at the Minisceongo Creek in March and wait for it to warm up at the end of May. That is when the Department of Environmental Conservation puts in a fyke net on the way upstream so the monitors could count them. I caught the eels in a hand net and counted about 200 of them. I marveled how these translucent creatures survived and traveled all this distance. The eel ladder in the Sparkill Creek is a pipe with holes and helps the larger eels climb up and plop into a basket that is placed a mile up the Creek past a number of dams. The eels or Anguilla rostrata, are part of the environmental mix and are a measure of the environmental impact, because the more you find, the better you feel about things.”

A fyke net is a kind of fish trap. It consists of a long cylindrical netting bag, usually with several netting cones fitted inside the netting cylinder to make entry easy and exit difficult. The net is then mounted on rigid rings or other rigid framework and fixed on the sea bed by anchors, ballast or stakes. It also has wings or leaders to help guide the fish towards the entrance of the bag. They’re commonly used in estuaries or inshore shallow water.

Volunteers conduct physical, chemical and biological surveys of Rockland County’s streams to monitor the current state of streams’ health and assess the level of impairment. Streams are affected by the amount and types of pollutants that dissolve or flow into them via storm drains and runoff. Pollutants include sediment resulting from soil erosion from developments and construction sites, nitrogen, phosphorous and pesticides leaching from lawns plus roadway and parking lot runoff such as car oil and litter.

The purpose for monitoring the waterways is to:

  • Collect baseline water quality data from Rockland County streams.
  • Connect citizens with their local streams through education and hands-on involvement.
  • Allow public access to water quality monitoring information for educational purposes.

The bio-monitoring program is a collaboration between the Rockland County Soil & Water Conservation District and the Rockland County Division of Environmental Resources. The program started in 2006 and is in partnership with the New York State Soil and Water Conservation Committee. The program uses the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation Water Assessment by Volunteer Evaluators (WAVE) monitoring protocol.

“I’m a retiree, and four years ago, I saw an ad about an environmentally positive volunteer position that had the natural attraction of being outdoors. I have learned things that I would never have known,” Winner concluded. “The big deal to me is meeting other people who all have fascinating stories to tell.”

For additional information about volunteering, call the Rockland County Soil and Water Conservation District at 845-364-2670.