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River Watch

River Watch is a hands-on environmental education program for youth in Hennepin County. Teams of youth assess the health of local streams by identifying and quantifying the stream's biological community. The program is available to school classes and youth groups.

Youth collect macroinvertebrates (small aquatic organisms) from the stream and then identify them in a lab setting. Conclusions about the stream's water quality can be drawn based on the number and variety of organisms in the stream All activities are conducted in a group setting with assistance from a Hennepin County River Watch educator.

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River Watch provides an invaluable experiential scientific and environmental experience. It gets youth directly involved in collecting valuable data on the health of streams in the county while learning first-hand about water quality.

Who can be involved?

River Watch can accommodate groups of youth through a school classroom, afterschool or out-of-school-time youth group, church or library group. The program is suitable for middle school and high school students.

What classes can River Watch be incorporated into?

Educators have used the hands-on experienced provided through River Watch in numerous creative ways to meet a variety of standards. River Watch provides education in science, math, ecology and human interaction with the environment, making it applicable to many classes. River Watch has been used in biology, chemistry, Advanced Placement, general science, writing and math classes.

Why biological monitoring?

Biological monitoring measures many factors that influence the organisms that live in a stream. Some macroinvertebrates spend years maturing in the stream. Thus, the size and diversity of their population reflect the cumulative impacts of all stream conditions that occur during their life cycles, such as water chemistry, habitat characteristics, pollution levels and changes in water flow or velocity.

Certain species are intolerant of pollution and won’t be present in streams with degraded water quality or habitat. Biological monitoring adds a significant component to the overall assessment of stream health, and many volunteers find it more engaging.

Learn more

To learn more about participating in River Watch, see the River Watch educator guide (PDF).

Get involved - register your class

Complete the River Watch registration form to get your class or group involved and to request assistance from a River Watch educator.

Data sheets for in the field

Depending on group size, youth may be split into groups that work on different activities when at the stream site. The following data sheets correspond with various in-field activities.

Data sheets for in the lab

Youth will work in groups in the lab to identify the macroinvertebrates that were collected from the stream. The data for the entire class or group will be combined into a master spreadsheet that will allow you to draw conclusions about the stream's water quality.

  • Master identification spreadsheet (XLS)
    Use this spreadsheet to calculate the total count of macroinvertebrates collected by your class or group and draw conclusions about the stream's water quality.

River Watch generally involves three segments:

  1. Pre-fieldwork prep and watershed study, which typically takes one class period.
  2. Collection and monitoring in the field, which typically takes 2–3 hours.
  3. Identification and water quality assessment in the lab, which requires one or two class periods.

For more information on each of these segments, see the River Watch educator guide (PDF).

Group size and chaperones

The minimum group size is 5–10 youth. The recommended number of chaperones is one adult per five youth in grades 6–8 and one adult per 10 youth in grades 9–12.

Site selection

Teachers/group leaders will work with the River Watch coordinator to select an appropriate site that is as close to their school or group location as possible.


All participants must complete and submit the Hennepin County waiver (DOCX) before heading to the stream site. For individuals under 18, a parent or legal guardian must approve and sign the form. A waiver must be signed regardless of the level of participation.

Bus transportation

Hennepin County has funding available to cover the costs of bus transportation to the field site for River Watch. Complete the bus reservation form to take advantage of this service.

Equipment needed

See the equipment checklist (PDF) to ensure you have all the equipment needed for both in-field monitoring and in-lab identification and assessment. Work with the River Watch coordinator to determine what equipment is provided by Hennepin County and what equipment you need to provide.

2021 annual report

After a year-long hiatus due to COVID in 2019, staff were able to carefully plan a return in the fall of 2021. Following state and federal guidelines a plan for resuming direct support of River Watch groups was approved including in-field support outside. But because of restrictions, staff were not allowed to meet with students in the classroom yet. Creative thinking went into effect and solutions were developed.

While field work was possible in 2021, many groups took advantage of our new option of remote ID assistance. Staff worked with each group via remote link to identify organisms in the classroom.

See a summary of the data collected and the stream health assessments in the 2021 River Watch report (PDF).

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