Section: SPORTS,  Page: C1

Date: Thursday, July 3, 1997

Department of Environmental Conservation biologist Bob Bode stooped along the narrow stream bank to poke intently into the mass of creek bottom and sediment he'd kicked up into a waiting net then dumped into an enamel pan. ``Oh, great. Caddis larvae. That's an excellent sign. Look, lots of them. Here's a sowbug, and these are midge larvae. That's not so great. They can be associated with poor water quality. What I want to see is just one mayfly nymph, just one,'' he muttered, putting his nose practically in the stuff.

But poke around as he might, he didn't. The entire two or three pounds of teeming organic matter will be scrutinized under a microscope back at the bureau of water monitoring and assessment labs at RPI's Technology Park, in a building this three-person DEC team shares with a big U.S. Geological Survey staff. A federal agency, it turns out, that is quietly doing a lot of compatible and complementary water quality assessment work in the region and throughout the state. Some of the work has huge political implications, which I will get into on a future occasion.

Just downstream, USGS ecologist Karen Riva-Murray was busy electro-shocking the stream while DEC biologist Larry Abele worked a net to catch the stunned results. In 100 meters, they netted 22 minnows and a couple of crayfish.

They were delighted with the results, considering where they were, and where this stream has been.

It's Patroon Creek, an urban waterway for maybe 300 years. It runs almost four miles, as much underground and streets and buildings as over land, right through the heart of old, industrial Albany and into the Hudson. Yet here we were on a steamy July afternoon knee-deep in a perfectly nice, free-running 10-foot-wide stream with a good, strong flow. There was no garbage, or heaps of trash, or strange odors, or weird slicks. The water was only a little milky. Bode cautioned that it isn't quite ready to spawn trout, but it does seem to have improved markedly.

Tentatively Patroon Creek is off the biomonitoring unit's list of 10 most uninhabitable streams in New York, being upgraded from severely impacted by pollution to only moderately impacted. That's a big jump.

Abele has personal and professional remembrances of Patroon Creek in less glorious times. When he was a student 30 years ago he worked at the defunct Tobin Packing Company, and recalls rather vividly seeing the Patroon run red from the slaughterhouse blood.

Then in 1991, he was one of the DEC monitoring team that performed the first sampling where we were revisiting Wednesday. No fish turned up, only masses of aquatic worms that thrive on organic matter and midge larvae, sure signs of poor water. Analyses revealed abundant heavy metals, very high levels of bacteria and also some strange, soggy white stuff.

Abele took it back to the lab, put it under the microscope and still couldn't say for sure what it was until, in a moment of scientific inspiration, he scrambled to the men's room and came running back with a section of toilet paper. It was a match.

It turned out that until 1994, raw sewage was inadvertently pumped into Patroon Creek by the Albany Sewer District, from an overflow pipe never capped off. That's been corrected.

And now there are fathead minnows, plump ones. And caddis flies. It does not smell bad, or look awful. But the Patroon does need a service club or sportsman's group to lend some hands-on cleanup work. Non-point pollution is probably it's biggest enemy now, but that can be licked in time, if there's the will.

Look how far we've come in 30 years from a stream that ran red and stank to high heaven.

Fred LeBrun's outdoors column appears Tuesdays and Thursdays. To reach him, call 454-5453.