Day after day, Chauncey Moran leaves his backwoods cabin, packs his pickup with gear and embarks on a scientific mission: checking the health of the Yellow Dog River.
Friends call the 62-year-old retiree ''River Walker'' for his devotion to the trout stream, which meanders through forests and sandy plains in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and eventually feeds into Lake Superior.
Moran is part of a nationwide corps of volunteers who monitor lakes, rivers and wetlands for pollution and its effects. Their role is becoming more crucial as government water protection agencies struggle with staff and budget shortfalls.
''Citizen monitors are the first and sometimes the only line of defense for our waterways. There's often nobody else there looking,'' said Scott Dye, director of the Sierra Club's Water Sentinels Program, which provides equipment and training for volunteers in 18 states.
The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality has partnerships with numerous organizations that keep tabs on local waters, said spokesman Robert McCann. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency lists about 900 water monitoring groups around the country with 190,000 trained members and officials say the number is growing.
Moran regularly visits about 20 spots along the 51-mile-long Yellow Dog in northern Marquette County, wading into swift currents to gather data and filling out charts that he forwards to the state DEQ.
He measures water temperature, clarity, acidity levels and other characteristics. He notes fish species. He pokes through sediments, scooping up aquatic bugs, mussels, and worms, the variety and abundance of which offer clues about water quality. He snaps thousands of photos a year.
The off-the-beaten-path Yellow Dog is better off than many rivers, but Moran has spotted problems from sediment buildup, which damages fish habitat. Near the mouth, stream flow has been diverted and a section filled with eroded sand, triggered by a decade-old landslide that people may have caused.
His primary goal is to develop benchmarks that could signal dangerous trends in the future.
Threats to the river are many, Moran said. He is vice chairman of a group fighting a proposed nickel and copper mine in the area, which opponents fear would pollute the watershed despite Kennecott Minerals Co.'s promised safeguards.
Moran, who sports a bushy beard and shoulder-length, graying hair, has had run-ins with loggers and off-road vehicle riders over damage to the river and its surroundings.
''This is God's creation, and I feel driven to care for it,'' he said. ''This is my ministry, this is my mission.''
However deeply felt, spiritual and emotional appeals count for less than hard science when environmental rules are made and enforced. So Moran doggedly compiles a statistical and photographic record.
Government officials say data produced by volunteers is helpful to a point. Sometimes it falls short of scientific standards needed to prove a violation of environmental rules, said Benjamin Grumbles, assistant administrator for water at the Michigan DEQ. But it can tip off regulators that trouble may be brewing.
That's important in states like Michigan, which has dozens of watersheds. The DEQ said it has enough staff to evaluate each of them just once every five years.
''I'd love to have a volunteer organization in every watershed that's been trained, so we're pretty confident about the quality of the information,'' said Gary Kohlhepp, a DEQ aquatic biologist. ''But I don't think it's a substitute for a professional.''
Still, four years into it, Moran works hard at what he does.
''I've been with him in the winter where there's ice and snow ... and we've been at it five or six hours and his hands are about frozen,'' said John Anderson, a fellow member of the Yellow Dog Watershed Preserve. ''There's no shortcuts.''
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