Monitoring Creek Water Quality

Successful revitalization of Onondaga Creek for recreational use is dependent not only on improving visible attributes — such as reducing trash buildup with our annual in-creek cleanups — but on understanding and monitoring the measurable quality of the creek water. The CNY chapter of the Izaak Walton League of America (IWLA) volunteer organization, in partnership with several area high-school science teachers, SUNY-ESF, Syracuse University, and the Onondaga County Soil & Water Conservation District, has been developing “Project Watershed CNY” since the chapter’s inception in 1989, and using this regional program to monitor Onondaga Creek.

Please consult the NYS Department of Health for detailed information regarding safe fishing and consumption recommendations.

Method for Assessing Water Quality

CNY IWLA’s “Project Watershed CNY” follows the “Save Our Streams” methods for assessing water quality based on the identification of stream insects and macroinvertebrates, and additionally adds a chemical monitoring component based on the Field Manual for Water Quality Monitoring: An Environmental Education Program for Schools by Mark Mitchell and William Stapp at the University of Michigan. 

Spanning more than two decades, volunteers have sampled points along Onondaga Creek from the headwaters near Route 80 and Tully Farms Road all the way to Dickerson Street near downtown Syracuse, recording and archiving their biological and chemical sample results in CNY IWLA’s database.

Biological Water Quality

Simply speaking, we know organisms who make the creek-water their homes — mainly insects and macroinvertebrates (crustaceans) — range from being very tolerant of poor water quality to being very sensitive to water pollution (and particularly decreased levels of dissolved oxygen). CNY IWLA volunteers examine sample water from various points along the creek to record how many organisms they can see — paying extra attention to how many very sensitive organisms they observe — to then infer excellent, good, fair, or poor water quality using the “Save Our Streams” standardized biological monitoring rubric.

  • The SENSITIVE category includes insects like mayflies, stoneflies and caddisflies.
  • The LESS SENSITIVE category includes crayfish, scuds, dragonflies and damselflies.
  • The TOLERANT category includes midge flies, black flies and leeches.

The more organisms the volunteers record in their sample the better, and the more sensitive organisms the even better!

Chemical Water Quality

Chemical tests assess what’s harder for CNY IWLA volunteers to observe directly in their water samples and record nine distinct measurements:

  • Dissolved Oxygen
  • Fecal Coliforms
  • pH
  • Biochemical Oxygen Demand (BOD)
  • Reactive Phosphate
  • Nitrate Nitrogen
  • Chlorides
  • Turbidity
  • Total Dissolved Solids (TDS)

Similar to the biological water quality assessment, the nine chemical measurements are then weighted using the “Save Our Streams” standardized chemical monitoring rubric to produce an overall chemical water quality rating of excellent, good, fair, or poor.

More information on water quality tests and an archive of records can be found on the CNY IWLA website.

More Information and References

Izaak Walton League of America


Project Watershed CNY

Onondaga County Soil & Water Conservation District

We are grateful to Les Monotory, retired environmental planner with the Onondaga County Health Department and the County’s Environmental Management Council, for his commitment to CNY IWLA and partnership in publishing this content about water quality monitoring.