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Utah Water Watch uses volunteers to monitor water quality across state

The U.S. Geological Survey took a five percent pay cut this year as part of federal sequestration. As a result the agency has to pull the plug on hundreds of stream gauges throughout the West. A new water quality monitoring program in Utah is powered by volunteers who collect stream data while they’re out enjoying the great outdoors. Jennifer Pemberton has this report on the Utah Water Watch.

Stream gauges are an important tool in monitoring hydrology. They’re used for flood prediction, drought prediction and a number of other indicators of watershed health. But a stream gauge costs thousands of dollars and over $10,000 a year to operate. The Utah Water Watch program is powered by citizen scientists who volunteer to take similar measurements once a month  using $200 worth of equipment. The program is a collaboration between Utah State University Extension and the state Division of Water Quality.

Brian Greene is the program coordinator. Today he’s training 5 new volunteers for his army of nearly 150 who monitor sites from Bear Lake to the Virgin River.

Volunteers are expected to go out once a month for 7 months out of the year to the same site along the nearly 15,000 miles of rivers and streams in Utah. Today’s training takes place on the Logan River just down the bank from US highway 89.

 “By recording things down and doing this, you can actually have a record over time of how things improve or change,” Greene said.

The advantage that a citizen scientist has over an expensive instrument beaming its numbers back to a lab, is a level of detailed qualitative data that’s critical to seeing patterns. The first thing we do is take field observations. We’re just looking around and noting the general environment.

“The first one is flow. We’re talking about the flow of water through the stream,” Greene said.

Other observations include water color, clarity, and odor, and whether or not you see any dead fish lying around and if so, how many.

Then comes the science fair stuff. Each volunteer gets a Utah Water Watch pouch that includes thermometers, litmus papers, a kit that measures the amount of dissolved oxygen in the water, an E. coli testing kit with petri dishes, and a turbidity tube.

We also take a good look at the bugs in the water, the macroinvertebrates.

 “Maybe you’ve heard though story of the canary in the coal mine. That’s a horrible example. They should say insects in the stream. We have hundreds and thousands of studies from scientists all over the world that show that macroinvertebrates are great indicators of water quality,” Greene said.  

The macroinvertebrates bring the whole picture into focus.

“These insects, by there being a lot of diversity and a lot of ones that are intolerant to pollution, it gives me as a scientist a signal that this water is clean water,” Greene said. “Remember we’ve also taken our dissolved oxygen. 10 milligrams per liter. That was in the good range. pH was 8. That was in the good range. Temperature. It was 12 degrees Celsius, not supposed to get above 20. So all of these measurements are telling me that this Logan River, right here where we’re sampling today is a pretty healthy stream.”

Utah Water Watch is made up of families, fishing enthusiasts, grad students, scouts, teachers, or people who have streams or rivers running through their backyard. Volunteers can choose their monitoring site -- a place they’re emotionally attached to or visit frequently -- or get an assignment for a site that state scientists have flagged for monitoring.

What Utah Water Watch volunteers are monitoring for is primarily baseline measurements. They’re not water police, and they’re not reporting contamination to the EPA. They’re creating a consistent data set for a specific point in the watershed.

 “We’ve shown that once a month for seven months out of the year gives us a pretty good initial picture of the water quality assessment. Going out monitoring once or twice is valuable, but what’s really valuable is consistent monitoring,” Greene said.

In a dry state like Utah, we’re often worried about water quantity. We’re worried that there won’t be enough water. And that’s a legitimate concern. But such small quantities of water mean that the quality of that water is crucial.

We use 5.1 billion gallons of water a day in Utah, and that water needs to be clean.  But clean is a relative term. Clean for drinking and clean for swimming or fishing or irrigating are different. Aggregating all these volunteers’ observations and descriptions and data contributes to water management plans that keep the state in line with the Federal Clean Water Act standards, but it also increases public knowledge of watershed health in the state.

Becoming a Utah Water Watch volunteer means that you get to know a spot intimately. You know when it looks slightly off, or smells different or has fewer caddis flies or too many leeches. The philosophy of the program, according to Greene, besides being a practical and economical way of capturing a lot of data, is to instill a sense of ownership and empowerment of this valuable resource in Utahns.

 “The power of this program comes from not one person doing everything but from everybody doing a little bit,” Greene said. “Most importantly we want this to be something fun and enjoyable for you guys to know that you our out making a difference, protecting water quality here in Utah.”

Interested volunteers can contact Brian Greene at 435-797-2580
More information about Utah Water Watch.