I Spy Biodiversity

World Water Monitoring Day is September 18. Learn how TVA protects critical ecosystems through monitoring and educational outreach.

SEPTEMBER 14, 2020 — When Jon Michael Mollish was a child, he loved the popular “I Spy” books that prompt children to search for hidden items among the images on each page.

Today, Mollish likens his professional work to his efforts to find “I Spy” images; except now, the items he’s looking for are in Tennessee Valley waterways. As a TVA biologist, Mollish monitors water quality and environmental health by finding and assessing the aquatic communities and biodiversity in the Valley’s rivers and streams.

“Just like the I Spy books, there is this incredible hidden world of life, beauty and diversity right in front of us, but few ever see it,” Mollish says. “Many fish are cryptic in nature and not easily found or captured. Curiosity drives us to discover and find what all is out there in that hidden underwater world.”

With World Water Monitoring Day on Friday, September 18, Mollish took time to explain two critical ways that TVA helps protect the Valley’s waterways and biodiversity: first, by monitoring water quality in rivers and streams across the Valley, and second, by providing educational outreach that teaches Valley residents about the incredible aquatic biodiversity in their backyards.

Socially Distanced Sampling

During the current coronavirus pandemic, TVA biologists have shifted gears from their conventional river and stream monitoring, but important water quality monitoring is still being done. In normal times, teams of four or more biologists work in close proximity, huddled around a net or near electrofishing equipment to evaluate fish populations and other aquatic life. For now, the teams have incorporated social distancing in their sampling, spacing themselves out on boats and in streams.

TVA’s biologists measure water quality and ecological health in Valley rivers by conducting a standardized sampling assessment called an Index of Biotic Integrity (IBI) survey. IBIs not only evaluate the condition of the fish and aquatic insect communities, but also weigh the health of the physical habitat on the river banks and within the stream itself.

Over 550 IBI sites are monitored on a regular rotation and, of those, more than 100 are surveyed each year. IBI sampling sites range from small mountain streams to large, deep rivers, and the aquatic animals found can vary greatly.

“When you go to the doctor for a health checkup, the doctor doesn’t just look at you and say, ‘OK, you are healthy,’” Mollish notes. “The doctor will take your temperature and perhaps suggest bloodwork and other tests. It is the same principle with rivers and streams. You can’t just look at a river and say it is healthy. You have to jump in and physically survey. Your fish populations tell the tale of how healthy the stream or river is because they are limited by factors such as pollution or habitat quality.”

Water quality monitoring is vital to the health of the entire region, because human health is dependent on environmental health. TVA’s water quality data is shared with federal, state and local agencies as well as universities and other organizations that use the information for everything from guiding environmental regulations, to helping direct stream restoration funding, to evaluating sustainable ways to conduct business without impacting the local environment.

Protecting the Secret World

TVA runs the TVA Science Kids World Water Monitoring program in partnership with EarthEcho International. Mollish and his co-workers conduct educational outreach with people of all ages.


TVA facilitators use science kits developed by EarthEcho International to teach third-, fourth- and fifth-graders about water monitoring and how to protect waterways. Last year, the program reached more than 12,000 students across the Valley.

Since the pandemic began, TVA has recorded videos that provide similar information to what would normally be discussed during live presentations. TVA also is developing methods for mailing kits to the schools and for collecting stream water that can be delivered to the school for the day of the presentation.

“Education is key,” Mollish says. “Most adults, yet alone kids, don’t realize they live in one of the most biodiverse areas on the planet, and this biodiversity is foundational to understanding the health of our environment. It is difficult, because our fish and aquatic animals live in this secretive world, and general human nature is we have to see it to believe it. I feel fortunate to have to opportunity to show off this biodiversity firsthand so hopefully future generations will be inclined to protect it.”

TVA’s work with community partners to build a stronger, more sustainable future is highlighted in the 2019 Sustainability Report. View the report here