New monitoring project seeks to update Bitterroot water quality information

New monitoring project seeks to update Bitterroot water quality information

Source: Ravalli Republic
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Rick Rowan

Volunteer citizen scientists will monitor the water quality of the Bitterroot River watershed at four points along its main stem this summer starting July 11.

The Bitterroot River Health Check is a program partnered with Bitterroot College, the Clark Fork Coalition and the University of Montana Watershed Health Clinic. The data they collect will aid policy decisions of agencies such as Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks and the Department of Environmental Quality. The Bitterroot River has not been monitored upstream of Maclay Bridge since 2012.

Michael Howell is the executive director of the Bitterroot River Protection Association, an organization dedicated the the protection and preservation of the Bitterroot River and its tributaries and the organization which will run the river health checks.

 Howell and his volunteers plan to measure what is called the total maximum daily load, a regulatory term stemming from the Clean Water Act of 1972, which means the maximum amount of any given pollutant a body of water can receive before becoming impaired.

“The idea behind total maximum daily load, whether it’s one chemical or another, is that when you have too much of that, you negatively impact the river or stream’s ability to support what the state has identified as one of its beneficial uses,” Howell said.

According to the Montana DEQ under the Clean Water Act, a beneficial use can be anything from drinking water and irrigation, to supporting aquatic life populations and recreation.

The nutrient load from agricultural runoff is generally what impairs the water in the Bitterroot Valley, according to Howell.

“If there’s too much nitrogen in a river to support a fishery, its impaired, and you lose your beneficial use,” Howell said.

Doug Nation, of the Bitterroot chapter of Trout Unlimited, was the last person to monitor the Bitterroot River’s water quality extensively. Between 2001 to 2009 Nation took samples at seven locations along the river.

According to Nation, his motivation came from Will McDowell, who worked for the Tri-State Water Council and gave a presentation to Nation’s Trout Unlimited Chapter.

“He did a lot of testing on the Clark Fork and bemoaned the lack of information on the Bitterroot,” Nation said. “‘I said geez, I’m a chemist, I could take the samples.’”

The main takeaway from the samples Nation took at the time, was that the Bitterroot’s water was largely in good shape.

“Even in the most pristine waters there’s going to be some nutrients in the river, that grow algae and feed the organisms the fish eat, but when the balance gets thrown off you get an overabundance of algae that chokes out other life,” Nation said. “Once it’s out of balance, it’s very difficult to return it.”

Using Nation’s data as a baseline, Howell said he is excited to see what has changed and to provide updated information.

Howell is hosting a training session at the Main Street Bridge in Hamilton on Saturday, June 17. Staff from the Montana DEQ and the city of Missoula laboratory will provide training.

“We have about fifteen people signed up for certified training in the procedures and the protocols they will be called upon to do, this will then be the model,” Howell said, “Each person will have a packet they will fill in routinely and note exceptions. We’ll end up with data that can go right into the state’s database to be used for decisions about the river’s future.”

 The training will also be integrated into a course at Bitterroot College, where students could emerge with a certification to do water monitoring, according to Howell.

Vicki Watson will help evaluate the results collected from the volunteer citizen scientists. Watson is a professor of environmental studies at University of Montana where she focuses her research on the conservation, preservation and restoration of watersheds.

Watson said she is interested in problems related to low flow and high temperatures on the Bitterroot River in addition to the nutrient levels. Some of the low flow could be related to increased development in the Bitterroot, because a larger number of people are all pulling water from the same aquifer, but that’s not the only cause.

“Whether you wanna call it climate change or climate cycles we have been getting warmer and hotter summers which lead to low flows. We get more extremes now, higher high flows and lower low flows,” Watson said.

Continued study of the problems in our watersheds will help scientists and policy makers understand our water better and better, according to Watson.

The Bitterroot River Health Check secured funding for five years so far, but they still hope to receive more contributions from local businesses and non-profits.  Howell is optimistic though.

“The degree to which the river is interwoven into our economy is astounding,” Howell said. “I feel extremely grateful to live in a community where water and water quality have such impacts and the people stand up and care for it.”