Citizen Science and Water Data with RiverNET
Photo: A graph showing depth and temperature at the Upper Big Creek site was created by the electronic data logger.
This post was written by Morgan Squires, Patrick Cross and Jeff Reed – all individuals involved with RiverNET – to provide a more in-depth explanation of this resource.
Most everyone who has fished the Yellowstone can recount stories of catching Mountain Whitefish, a native species to the area. The Whitefish holds a role as an indicator species for the Yellowstone watershed, and in 2012 and 2017 thousands of these whitefish lifelessly rose to the surface of the river, exposing a truly unfortunate situation.
The general public demanded answers, yet there was no easy explanation. However, in search for the cause of death, which was proliferative kidney disease, it became apparent that the Upper Yellowstone watershed lacked a water monitoring program. This is where the Yellowstone Ecological Research Center (YERC), a Bozeman nonprofit, saw an opportunity to help collect data.
In partnership with the Upper Yellowstone Watershed Group, the Sweet Grass Conservation District of Big Timber and additional support from local groups, RiverNET was created with the goal of monitoring water quality and quantity. Tributary discharge and water quality data is collected by field technicians and with the use of electronic data loggers. Volunteers, or citizen scientists such as fishing guides and high school students, also assist in collecting water quality samples. YERC will make the data publicly available and is open to suggestions and interpretation from outside organizations.
This year, many positive interactions with landowners have allowed field technicians private land access to collect data at 20 different sites between Gardiner and Big Timber. Many connections with landowners have been made with the help of local fly shop employee, Rick Wollum, as well as assistance from the Big Timber USDA office. The field crew also had success making connections with cold door knocking and phone calls. Some landowners have even felt compelled to assist with equipment installation and assist financially by purchasing their own data loggers. Additionally, fishing guides from Anglers West are eager citizen scientists and include their clients in water sample collection. The overall support for RiverNET has been truly wonderful and suggests that this citizen science model for data collection can be expanded into other watersheds.
In late June, the water quality sampling will kick off for the second year, and this year we will also be coordinating sampling with Montana DEQ for independent quality control. Water sampling will occur at 2-week intervals and will follow YERC analysis protocols approved by DEQ. Networking with the local community and engaging in citizen science has been a major contributor to successful data collection. The best part is that the community is involved because everyone values clean water, and it is no secret that water is an essential component of Montanan’s livelihoods and the economy.
For more information about RiverNET, or to get involved please see the RiverNET webpage, or email us. You can also access the water quality and water flow data at the Upper Yellowstone Watershed Group’s website.