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Adopt-A-Stream Programs

Minimum Measure: Public Involvement/Participation

Subcategory: Stormwater-Related Activities

Photo of adopt-a-stream volunteers help monitor their stream


Adopt-A-Stream programs are an excellent public outreach tool for municipalities to involve citizens of all ages and abilities. They are volunteer programs in which participants "adopt" a stream, creek, or river to study, clean up, monitor, protect, and restore. Through these activities, the adopting group or organization becomes the primary caretaker of that stretch of stream in the watershed.


A municipality can tailor an Adopt-A-Stream program to allow participation from any group or organization within a watershed. Adoptions are as flexible and unique as the streams themselves. Adopting a stream is a great program for youth groups, including church groups, scouts, and school clubs, but it can also be a great activity for adult groups, such as neighborhood associations, civic organizations, or businesses. Levels of involvement range from quarterly visual surveys and litter pick-ups to monthly testing to one-time habitat improvement projects. The objective of the program is not only to remove litter, but also to improve the quality of the stream. Waste collected from stream banks and channels could spur local interest in maintaining and improving the water quality and aesthetics of all local waterbodies. It can also prevent such waste from moving downstream and potentially into the ocean, where it becomes marine debris.

Municipalities can sponsor many different activities through Adopt-A-Stream programs, such as:

  • Implementing stream cleanups to collect waste,
  • Conducting streambank surveys,
  • Monitoring stream insects and gauging water quality,
  • Executing streambank enhancement projects, such as tree planting, to help control erosion and stabilize streambanks,
  • Implementing storm drain stenciling to prevent improper disposal of materials into storm drains,
  • Conducting construction site surveys for proper stormwater controls, and
  • Promoting education about the watershed through stream walks, workshops, and other activities.


Municipalities can begin an Adopt-A-Stream program by obtaining a watershed map and marking potential stream sites on it. Rough watershed maps can be obtained from EPA's (USEPA, 2000 Surf Your Watershed website, or more detailed maps can be ordered from the U.S. Geological Survey Exit EPA Site. The watershed map can then be used to keep track of which stretches are adopted and by whom. Once the stream sites have been identified, a monitoring and reporting plan to evaluate the conditions of the stream should be developed.

The next step is to prepare "how to" packets on each activity that can be distributed to interested organizations. Typical packets include

  • Instructions and information needed to conduct an activity such as stream monitoring or storm drain stenciling,
  • Topographic maps of the area (with the stream of interest designated),
  • Data sheets for recording observations,
  • Equipment or lists of necessary equipment (such as bags, gloves, and monitoring devices),
  • First-aid kits,
  • Comments on the stream's history,
  • Field guides,
  • Contact information,
  • A basic "do's and don'ts" list for what to do if hazardous materials like syringes are encountered,
  • Safety tips,
  • General hints for a successful cleanup, and
  • Rewards for volunteers (such as stickers or certificates).

For example, a packet for conducting a stream cleanup might include trash bags and gloves, a map designating appropriate trash pickup sites along the stream and private land areas for which special permission might be required, and a list of contact information for trash collectors and recyclers.

Most Adopt-A-Stream programs also require their participants to complete documentation, such as a registration form. Items that can be included on the registration form include the group's name, a contact person's name and address, the stream's name and location, a description of the stream stretch with landmarks (e.g., "from High Bridge north to Route 58 overpass"), the length of the stream, and the anticipated number of participants.

Some programs also require forms to be completed for a specific event, like a stream cleanup. A cleanup report should provide a record of the length of the area cleaned, the number of participants, and the amount of litter collected (e.g., the number of bags, total weight, and counts of trash items by category). To save on mailings, a master copy of the cleanup report can be mailed to the participating organization, which can reproduce the report for its members before each cleanup. If the organization keeps the original form and topographic map, trends in litter volume or other stream parameters over time can be noted.

Publicizing the Program and Its Activities. The media should be used whenever possible to spread the word about the Adopt-A-Stream program and the activities it sponsors. Advertisements can be placed in newspapers, public service announcements (PSAs) can be broadcast on TV and radio, and an Internet site can be developed with program information. Community groups and schools should be targeted in the outreach campaign through presentations and assemblies, stressing that the program is educational, philanthropic, and fun.

To help advertise Adopt-A-Stream events, news releases can be sent to local newspapers and radio and television stations before an activity occurs. Contacting the media in advance of a cleanup, storm drain stenciling event, or educational stream walk allows the press to cover the activity as it happens. When the activity is completed, a second news release explaining what was accomplished can be sent to the media.

Partnering with Schools. Many Adopt-A-Stream programs partner with schools to develop interdisciplinary classroom curricula and activities. Through the program, teachers and students adopt a waterway, perform chemical, physical, and biological testing to determine water quality, and perform habitat restoration. Participating in such an interdisciplinary program gives classroom learning a real-life application, enhances students' problem-solving capabilities, and provides community recognition of the students' efforts. Teachers can select projects and activities that best match their students' capabilities and the materials and resources available. The national Adopt-A-Stream organization Exit EPA Site, as well as numerous agencies nationwide, can provide teacher's guides for developing a classroom Adopt-A-Stream program.

Some schools find it valuable to enlist a co-sponsor, such as a community group or private organization, to aid them in their efforts. Co-sponsors vary in their involvement with the students. Some activities that co-sponsors can undertake include meeting with students to demonstrate community support for their efforts, helping to select an appropriate waterway, providing special information about the waterway, accompanying students on field trips, helping to prepare news releases and articles about the program, providing funds (if necessary), and helping to prepare a written report that compiles all of the data from schools in the watershed. Students and community members can then use this report as a focal point around which to plan strategies for involvement and actions for the coming year.


The effectiveness of Adopt-A-Stream projects is exemplified by the Northwest Pennsylvania Chapter of Trout Unlimited's Adopt-A-Stream project, located on Beaver Run in Erie County, Pennsylvania (NWPATU, no date). Beaver Run is a small meadow brown trout stream in southern Erie County. The Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Company designated Beaver Run as a class "A" wild trout water and stopped all stocking of hatchery trout. Over the years, some of the stream was subject to bank erosion caused by livestock grazing, resulting in siltation of pools and loss of habitat. Trout numbers had declined on the lower sections of the stream.

Some members of NWPATU had fished the stream over the years and knew that the stream was in decline. The chapter moved to adopt the lower mile and, with the blessing of the landowners, started project planning. The project would not have been successful without assistance from the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Company, a cash grant from the National Trout Unlimited Organization, donations of equipment from chapter members, and the hard work of NWPATU and Gem City Fly Tiers members. The project's first phase was to build four wing deflectors, two mud sills, two bank cribbings, and two cattle crossings over a 2-year period. On August 17 and 18, 1996, and July 11 and 12, 1997, the chapter met for 4 days of hard work. The crew completed construction and installation all of the devices outlined in the plans. These restoration efforts would not have been completed without the efforts of the Adopt-A-Stream group.

Another example of a successful program can be found in West Eugene, Oregon. West Eugene has a Stream Team program that provides citizens of all ages an opportunity to learn about the city's water resources and their role in protecting them. West Eugene offers hands-on projects that allow citizens the opportunity to improve water quality (City of West Eugene, 2001). See the City of Eugene's Exit EPA Site website for more information on the city's efforts to restore their water resources.


Municipalities can realize numerous benefits by implementing an Adopt-A-Stream program. Participants of the program help enhance the visual attractiveness of their watershed and improve habitat for wildlife, thus saving and restoring natural resources. In addition, the hands-on activities, recognition and exposure that schools, private organizations, and the community get when participating in an Adopt-A-Stream program provide a tremendous sense of accomplishment.


Commitment is probably the greatest limitation a municipality can face when implementating an Adopt-A-Stream program. Many people sign up for activities but quickly find they do not have time for follow-up activities. This is one reason youth groups are so well suited for these projects. Integrating a stream program into a curriculum or into a yearly scout project, ensures the group's commitment. Other limitations may include funding availability, weather, equipment maintenance, and liability associated with the dangers of slippery rocks or steep slopes.


When a municipality implements an Adopt-A-Stream program, its costs result primarily from the amount of time employees spend administering the program. Sponsoring an Adopt-A-Stream program can also result in significant costs. Sponsors' costs depend on the level of assistance the sponsoring agency contributes to participants in the program, such as providing activity packets, technical expertise, and database management. On the other hand, the cost of participating in an Adopt-A-Stream program is very low. Equipment for monitoring can be borrowed from universities and other research facilities, and activities such as stream cleanups might require only bags, gloves, clipboards, and pencils, which can be provided at low cost. Media coverage of program events is free.


Virginia Save Our Streams. No date. Getting Started in Water Monitoring. [ Exit EPA Site]. Accessed September 8, 2005.

City of Rome. 1999. Adopt-A-Stream. Rome, Floyd County, GA. [ Exit EPA Site].

City of West Eugene. 2001. The City of Eugene's Stream Team is Learning and Action. [ Exit EPA Site]. Accessed November 17, 2005.

City of West Eugene. 2001. West Eugene Wetlands Program. [ Exit EPA Site]. Accessed November 17, 2005.

Delta Laboratories. No date. Adopt-A-Stream. [ Exit EPA Site]. Accessed September 8, 2005.

NWPATU. No date. NWPATU Beaver Run Adopt-A-Stream Project. Trout Unlimited, Northwest Pennsylvania Chapter, Erie, PA.

Saginaw Bay Watershed Council. No date. Adopt-A-Stream Program [brochure]. Saginaw Bay Watershed Council, University Center, MI.

U.S. Geological Survey (USGS). 2001. National Mapping Information. [ Exit EPA Site]. Accessed October 27, 2008.

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA). 2000. Surf Your Watershed. []. Accessed September 8, 2005.


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Last updated on August 21, 2012