Smith River float permit winners will be asked to help document algae on their adventures

Smith River float permit winners will be asked to help document algae on their adventures

Source: Helena Independent Record
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TOM KUGLIN

Smith River floaters will be asked next year to help the state document algae blooms in what officials are calling a “test pilot” project for citizen science on one of Montana’s most renowned rivers.

As letters go out next year to the winners of highly coveted float permits, they will come with a request to download a yet-to-be-completed cellphone app. Once downloaded, floaters may take photos of algae blooms and upload the data to state officials after takeout.

The Montana Department of Environmental Quality and Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks will then have the data as the agencies study a recent increase in reports of algae in the river.

“This is a new one for us as we’re really looking at how to retool our citizen engagement, and getting people on the ground,” said Eric Urban, water quality planning bureau chief with DEQ. “It’s pretty remote, so getting on the ground and seeing it ourselves poses some challenges.”

The Smith, known for its picturesque canyons, is Montana’s only permitted river with about 8,000 lottery applications for about 1,500 peak season permits. The 59-mile float goes from Camp Baker near White Sulphur Springs, to Eden Bridge south of Great Falls.

Land ownership along the river is a mix of public and private with very limited access for biological research and monitoring.

While algae is a natural part of the river and this algae is not of the toxic variety, large blooms are often tied to low flows or fed by excess nutrients in the water. Algae can affect insect and other macroinvertebrate communities, Urban said.

Blooms also negatively affect the floating experience.

“We’ve witnessed algae growth much earlier in the season and at a higher density than in the past,” said Colin Mass, manager of Smith River State Park. “Engaging the public to assist with this project will help determine a cause and potential solutions and address the many concerns we’ve heard from recreationists and landowners.”

Officials theorize the algae blooms are the product of several years of low flows during spring runoff.

“We haven’t seen the big-stream high-flow events that typically rolls the rocks and busts the algae off,” Urban said.

Low flows are also of concern to fisheries biologists looking at trends in trout populations.

“The Smith has been on a steady decline of rainbow trout for several years,” said Grant Grisak, FWP regional fish manager, “and a slight increase of brown trout. We’re trying to find out why.”

July’s average peak water temperature was 75.8 degrees, with a maximum water temperature of 81 on July 14. Anything over 70 degrees can be detrimental to cold-water loving trout.

“That’s a harsh environment for a fish to live in,” Grisak said.

DEQ is charged with water quality and prioritizes monitoring when the public reports an issue such as on the Smith, he said, but for a long time algae has not been a major concern.

As DEQ ramps up its own sampling of the river, Urban believes the floater-provided data will help define the scope of the blooms. Officials hope to find out if algae are limited to certain stretches, or perhaps coming from a certain tributary.

“At this point we really don’t know yet if there’s a nutrient issue, so with that said we don’t know if there’s a controllable problem,” he said.

This year DEQ sampled nutrients, turbidity and algae at eight sites from Eden Bridge to the headwaters.

DEQ accounts for data quality concerns that may arise by crowdsourcing data within the project design, Urban said, and has a quality control officer looking at data. If successful, the state may look at more citizen science projects in the future.

“I think this is a test pilot (for citizen science) and we’ll see what other opportunities are available,” he said. “It’s new to Montana, but the population that floats the Smith are really engaged in water quality and rivers so our anticipation is that people will … be engaged.”

The project is one of 11 receiving EPA funding that encourages the use of citizen science to crowdsource data collection.

David Brooks, executive director of Montana Trout Unlimited, says the organization generally supports the project and the use of citizen science, but he does have some concerns.

“On one hand we support the idea of getting people to pay attention to algae blooms on the Smith. At the same time, my only concern with that is we wouldn’t want to see this be in lieu of DEQ doing their own surveying.”

If the project contributes to and does not replace water sampling by professionals, Brooks agreed the project is an appropriate use of crowdsourced data through citizen reporting.

That last high runoff year on the Smith was in 2011, he said, and the river has not seen large flushing flows that scour rocks and typically knock back algae. But Brooks is not totally convinced that flows alone explain the increased blooms and encourages the state to look hard at potential contributors of nutrients to the river — typically runoff from agricultural land or grazing pasture.

The project and concern about algae blooms underscores the importance of water quality with Brooks tying the assertion to his organization’s opposition to a proposed copper mine in the watershed.

“The Smith is a $10 million economic impact through angling alone during a permitted short float season,” he said. “This is worth figuring out.”