Blue Thumb Celebrates 20 Years: Volunteers Dine With Sharks

image of Liz Elliott, volunteer
Class of ’93 volunteer, Liz Elliott, poses with OCC Water Quality Division Director, Shanon Phillips, costumed as a bluegill sunfish

The Oklahoma Conservation Commission’s (OCC) volunteer stream monitoring and education program, Blue Thumb (BT), celebrated its 20th anniversary on November 9, 2013, at the Oklahoma Aquarium in Jenks. The event was designed both to educate the public on water conservation and health in a unique setting, as well as honor the volunteers who’ve worked so hard to make BT a success.

Show and Tell

The day began in the Great Hall where BT and partner exhibits educated and entertained guests of all ages. Aquarium visitors could tweeze through and identify living insect larvae in a jumbo water sample taken from West Elm Creek in Cleveland County, or witness pollutants such as motor oil and lawn fertilizer flow into streams and lakes in the Enviroscape model town. Of course, BT volunteers and staff were available at every exhibit to explain to guests the important role insect larvae (macroinvertebrates) play in feeding fish, or how simply fencing off areas near streams to protect them from livestock can significantly improve water quality.

image of Candice Miller conducting demonstration
Blue Thumb Education Coordinator, Candice Miller, gives a demonstration of the groundwater model.

Liz Elliot, one of the original BT volunteers of 1993, stood over the Storm Sewer in a Suitcase and recalled having a hand in its construction back in the early days of the program. Volunteers ultimately built over 25 of the teaching tools before switching to the Enviroscape model town.

Former part-time BT staffer, Bill DeShazo said “I remember my first time out [to monitor a stream], I was laughing. When someone asked why, I said ‘I don’t know whether I’m five years old, or 50 years old.’”

Dye Hard

image of fossil-like fish print painting
Blue Thumb Volunteer, Linda Welcher, creates a fossil-like fish print for guests to take home.

Nearby, BT Education Coordinator, Candice Miller, used the groundwater model to demonstrate how pollutants move through groundwater to affect water supplies miles away. Many people imagine groundwater as large lakes beneath our feet, but more often than not, it exists in the tight spaces between earth and porous stone. In the groundwater model, which looks like an ant farm filled with layers of pebbles and damp sand, Candice fed blue dye into one end of the model through a straw that reaches about halfway down into the “earth.” Next, Candice used a pump attached to a straw at the other end of the model to pull water out of the “ground” in much the same way a water well pump works. As water is pumped from the un-dyed ground, the blue dye slowly ekes across the model towards the pump—demonstrating that no matter where pollution enters the groundwater supply, it makes all of our water vulnerable to contamination.

The Friend of My Creek is My Friend

BT volunteer, Karen Chapman, staffed an exhibit for Friends of Bishop Creek [link] (FOBC), a BT group dedicated to the preservation of Bishop Creek, which runs through east Norman. The group performs chemical, biological, and physical monitoring in addition to hosting creek clean-up events to promote public awareness of this vulnerable urban waterway. FOBC has even worked with the mayor of Norman to promote water quality education in the community.

At the Oklahoma Green Schools [link] exhibit, volunteer Beth Landon detailed how the program encourages making school buildings more efficient and cost-effective through student-led, service-learning investigations.

Image of Water Quality Division employees
Blue Thumb Quality Assurance Officer, Kim Shaw, and OCC Water Quality Division Director, Shanon Phillips, present Blue Thumb State Coordinator, Cheryl Cheadle, with a photo montage commemorating Cheryl’s 20 years with Blue Thumb.

Unda Da Sea!

The highlight of the event came after the aquarium closed for regular business. As patrons packed into their cars for the trip home, aquarium staff unpacked tables and chairs for a truly unique dining experience—an intimate meal next to a swirling tank of bull, lemon, sand tiger, and nurse sharks.

As attendees dined, Tulsa County Conservation District’s Conservation Programs Specialist, Scott Grant, gave a presentation on the immense quantity and quality of data collected by Blue Thumb over 20 years of monitoring. His research drew interesting connections between periods of heavy rainfall and increased pollution in some streams, resulting in marked loss of stream biodiversity (the numbers of unique species living in a location).

Gratuitous Gratitude

Grant gave the floor over to State Blue Thumb Coordinator, Cheryl Cheadle, who presided over the recognition ceremonies. Each of the present original volunteers along with all other volunteers was recognized for their tremendous service and commitment to Oklahoma’s water quality.

“I’m honored to have worked with these amazing volunteers for the last 20 years,” Cheadle said. “We all have a job to do to protect our waters, and these volunteers are helping to get that job done.”

OCC Assistant Director, Ben Pollard, closed the event with a humorous list of reasons why the Commission loves BT Volunteers:

10. They know the difference between a Secchi disk and a Frisbee disk.

9. They don’t mind monitoring streams when it’s 20 degrees outside.

8. They know the headwaters of Oklahoma’s scenic Illinois River are in Arkansas, not Illinois.

7. They have collected important water quality data on over 175 Oklahoma streams.

6. They can drop the term benthic macroinvertebrate in casual conversation with friends.

5. We use Blue Thumb volunteer hours as match to bring additional federal water quality funds to Oklahoma.

4. They know a Madtom is not an angry turkey.

3. They care about the quality of Oklahoma’s waters.

2. They know that a stream’s health is determined by its physical habitat, its water chemistry, and its biological community.

Pollard paused for a wide grin before delivering the final reason:

“1. They work real cheap.”

Old Pals

Today, BT Volunteers attend a two-day training course before being let loose on a stream monitoring mission. For the original class of 1993, things weren’t so easy. They attended a six-hour training session modeled after the Tulsa County OSU Extension’s Master Gardener Program once per week for eight weeks before becoming a fully-fledged volunteer. Their names follow. Those underlined were present at the event. Those with an asterisk beside their names have passed away:

  • D.C. Anderson
  • Ed Anderson
  • Mark Ballew
  • Frank Barrick*
  • Ken Boone
  • Wilma Caudle
  • Marian Chittendon
  • Solomon Cruz
  • Su Davis
  • Wendy Davis
  • Liz Elliott
  • John Gallimore*
  • Cindy Hale
  • Rob Harrison
  • Jean Lemmon
  • Mac Macon*
  • Debra McDade
  • Shirley Miller
  • Bambi Murphy
  • Don Ochs*
  • Nancy Perry
  • Debbie Pleu
  • Floyd Rosson*
  • Everett Shissler
  • Norma Smith
  • Bill Studabaker
  • Robert Ternes
  • Mike Titus
  • Barbara Turner
  • Wallace Westervelt
  • Nadine Worthen
  • Jane Freeman* (Honorary Member)

The Oklahoma Conservation Commission extends its gratitude, high regard, and deep respect to Blue Thumb staff and volunteers for 20 years of dedication. Thank you.