Citizen scientists connect with local rivers | PostIndependent.com
Annie Whetzel

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Citizen scientists connect with local rivers

Annie Whetzel

It was hard to ignore the orange water running through the town of Durango in August 2015. The Gold King mine spill occurred in Cement Creek, a tributary of the Animas River, causing metals and minerals from the mine to flush into the water.

Mining is something we are all aware of in the West, and part of the West's history. Because of our mineral-rich, mountainous landscape, extraction will most likely be part of our future. When mining goes right, it makes little impact on the river. However, when things don't go right, like the Gold King Mine spill, the river is affected.

River Watch Colorado is a statewide citizen science program that monitors water quality to provide data on our rivers. If something goes wrong in our water, like a spill from a mine or an overturned oil truck on the highway, River Watch Colorado and the citizen scientists involved play a small, yet powerful role in the recovery efforts.

Colorado Parks and Wildlife and Colorado Watershed Assembly fund and manage River Watch Colorado. Barb Horn has led the program for more than 25 years, managing data from over 3,000 stations across 300 rivers in Colorado. As a passionate advocate for water testing and sample collections, Barb Horn still organizes and leads the trainings for future volunteers and partners.

River Watch Colorado had a few sites along Cement Creek. The data collected spanned almost 20 years and created a baseline for water quality. When asked about the importance of frequency and duration of River Watch Colorado's data, Horn jumped to explain, "Think about climate change and the first person who decided to keep temperature. And now, how important is that data?"

When the Animas turned burnt-umber, it was easy to document the color change. Yet agencies involved in the recovery efforts also closely monitored the metals, salinity, dissolved oxygen and acidity levels. River Watch provided the essential water quality data from before the spill. Thanks to River Watch Colorado's citizen science data, the authorities could tell exactly when the river returned to its baseline levels.

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"River Watch is very essential," said Peter Butler, co-coordinator of the Animas River Stakeholders, and leader in the recovery efforts of the Animas River, "if you don't know where your water baseline is, you don't know what you have to get back to."

Citizen scientists collect data for River Watch the same way at each site. My colleague at the Middle Colorado Watershed Council and I attended the fall training for River Watch to learn the proper way to collect, label, store and ship samples for River Watch. Barb Horn and other trainers taught us everything from standardized cleaning technique to the collection method from a stream to the correct way to titrate dissolved oxygen.

My lab partners ranged from other adult educators, to high-school football players, to middle school students, and amazingly, the material was accessible to everyone. This range of participants is the thread that keeps River Watch going. River Watch strives to educate youth and adults and creates an invested connection to the local water source.

The Middle Colorado Watershed Council monitors sites around Rifle and other tributaries to the Colorado River in our watershed. Other schools and nonprofits, such as the Roaring Fork Conservancy, monitor sites along the Crystal, Frying Pan and Roaring Fork rivers. Volunteers gather quality baseline data so that if anything might happen to our water, the collected data tracks the changes and helps us to understand when the necessary recovery efforts are successful.

"How do you take care of your own health?" Horn asked. "You get a physical. That is your baseline. River Watch collects baseline data. Almost all other monitoring will be limited in time and space. It will give you snapshots but not the whole story over space and time."

Ideally, our watershed will not have to use the baseline data in the same way that the Animas River needed to, but the good news is, we have it if we need it.

"The data we collect is preventative," Horn said, "and provides resiliency for a community. The more information you have, you know when you can bounce back to your quality of life."

Annie Whetzel is community outreach coordinator for the Middle Colorado Watershed Council.