For 18 years, local citizen-scientist volunteers have been monitoring the lifeblood of the North Fork Gunnison River valley -- the river itself and its tributaries. The long record of the watershed's health, which includes data collected during all seasons of the year, is an invaluable record for local water users, and for scientists and decision makers.
The local volunteer group, which is looking for new volunteers, is a part of Colorado's River Watch program, which has been in existence since 1989. River Watch is primarily funded by Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW) through a mix of federal funds and Colorado Lottery funds. River Watch's mission is to work with volunteer stewards to monitor water quality and other indicators of watershed health and use the data to educate citizens and inform decision makers about the condition of Colorado's waters. Another goal of River Watch is to provide hands-on real science experience learning the value and function of Colorado's surface water ecosystems.
"Our River Watch program is a testament to our community's desire to be good stewards and give back," says Jake Hartter, Western Slope Conservation Center (WSCC) Watershed Coordinator. "Our water unites us all, and supports our incredible farms and ranches in the North Fork Valley."
Water quality data has been and continues to be collected at stream locations from Muddy Creek above Paonia Reservoir to the confluence of the North Fork and mainstem of the Gunnison River, and in the Gunnison River at Austin.
The WSCC River Watch group samples and analyzes 8 stream locations quarterly for water quality indicators, including temperature, pH, dissolved oxygen, alkalinity, hardness, conductivity and turbidity. Total and dissolved metal samples are collected by the volunteers and analyzed at CPW laboratories for 13 metals. The volunteers also collect nutrient samples (total nitrogen, ammonia, nitrate/nitrite, total phosphorus, chloride, sulfate and total suspended solids) that are analyzed at CPW laboratories.
Fall macroinvertebrate samples are collected with a physical habitat assessment at a site on the North Fork Gunnison River a few miles west of Paonia. The macroinvertebrates, visible invertebrate fauna that include arthropods (insects, mites, scuds and crayfish), mollusks (snails, limpets, mussels and clams), annelids (segmented worms), nematodes (roundworms), and platyhelminthes (flatworms), are sent to a certified taxonomist to identify to genus and species. During recent years, the volunteers have netted, within several sweeps of the river bottom, more than 500 macroinvertebrates from a large variety of taxa, including mayflies, caddisflies, midges, annelid worms, and many others. The variety and numbers of macroinvertebrates is an excellent indicator of river health because they require specific aquatic conditions for a healthy habitat. Macroinvertebrates are commonly used as water quality indicators because they are easy to sample, are situated at the bottom of the aquatic food web, and provide predictable life cycle patterns. The macroinvertebrate sampling occurs every October when the widest range of life cycle stages can be found in the river bottom.
All River Watch data are public information and are available on the River Watch website, Colorado Data Sharing Network, National Water Quality Portal and is delivered to the Colorado Water Quality Control Division (WQCD) for its annual hearing data calls. Throughout Colorado, River Watch groups collect data at more than 1,200 sites on 700 streams. The River Watch volunteers collect far more stream water quality data than any other entity in Colorado, and their data provide a vast amount of long-term valuable information on the health of Colorado's streams.
Using the data collected by the local North Fork River Watch volunteers from 2001 to 2014, the Western Slope Conservation Center (WSCC) prepared a water quality report for the North Fork Gunnison River watershed that is available at: http://westernslopeconservation.org/external-resources/2016-wscc-water-quality-moni
toring-report-revised-03-18/. The WSCC will be preparing another water quality report using more recent water quality data collected by the volunteers.
River Watch volunteers meet in Hotchkiss in mid-March, mid-June, and mid-September and spend several hours as a group each time collecting samples in the field, analyzing them, and preparing the metal and nutrient bottles for shipment to the CPW laboratories. In early October, the volunteers collect macroinvertebrates from the river and ship them to the River Watch taxonomist for identification. Here are what current volunteers say about the experience:
"The river is the lifeblood of this valley -- a cliché that happens to be true," says Bruce. "Following on that thought, every so often you need to take its pulse. I wasn't really aware of what went into that process until I participated in my first River Watch monitoring along with the veteran crew that has been doing this for years. Experiencing the river close up and hearing how it has changed, taking measurements and gathering samples, searching for the patterns and indicators of the health of the watershed is knowledge you can only acquire and build on over time, and it starts with hands-on participation. If you really want to understand the North Fork Valley, you need to take the opportunity to get to know its river."
"Getting out in the beauty of the river and surrounding country both in winter and more temperate seasons of the year are magical times. Working with the other volunteers is always a joy and doing the lab analysis after collecting the water samples resurrects the fun days of school labs. No wonder these years have gone by so quickly!" [From Ralph, a local 10-year River Watch volunteer]
Do you want to help understand the health of North Fork of the Gunnison River watershed and help the local community, plus have fun playing in the water? The WSCC River Watch group needs more volunteers. No experience is necessary. If you are interested in volunteering, please contact Jake Hartter at 970-527-5307 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. The next monitoring event takes place this year in mid-June.