Colorado River Watch works with local stewards to gather water quality data
The watersheds throughout Eagle County certainly make up a large part of nearby ecosystems, however, statewide nonprofit Colorado River Watch recognizes that local waters are also an important part of a much larger system. The organization has gathered stewards from around the state to take part in uniform monthly water quality testing. Among other local stewards, the Eagle River Watershed Council helps gather data from Brush Creek for the River Watch database.
Entities that currently use Colorado River Watch data to inform watershed management include the Water Quality Control Commission, Colorado Parks and Wildlife and several grassroots-level watershed groups, like the Eagle River Watershed Council.
“Much like you can’t fix what you don’t know is broken, we can’t create impactful, effective solutions to problems until we know they exist,” the Eagle River Watershed Council website reads. “Our water quality monitoring helps uncover threats and concerns so that we can develop a plan to resolve them.”
To garner that sense of responsibility among everyday people, Colorado River Watch readings are not only made accessible to policymakers and stakeholders. Anyone can register for public access to the data through the organization’s website, ColoradoRiverWatch.org.
Volunteer stewards who collect Colorado River Watch data come from approximately 120 different organizations. Data gathered within Eagle County includes the Brush Creek water quality testing conducted by the Eagle River Watershed Council. Additionally, volunteer stewards include staff at Betty Ford Alpine Gardens, who conduct monthly testing at sites along the Eagle River, and the town of Vail conducts its monthly testing at sites along Gore Creek.
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Eagle River Watershed Council Projects Coordinator Anna Nakae said that the Watershed Council used to take samples and test water quality on the Eagle River. However, since the historic 1989 Eagle Mine spill, Nakae said the surrounding area became an Environmental Protection Agency Superfund Site. Entities that carefully monitor the Eagle River near the Superfund Site include the United States Geological Survey, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.
Now, Nakae said the Eagle River Watershed Council performs monthly River Watch testing at sites along Brush Creek.
“The Watershed Council has been doing River Watch for at least 10 years, but I think we just picked up Brush Creek three years ago,” Nakae said. “We decided to switch to a stream that wasn’t getting as much love, and not as much sampling.”
Other entities that collect samples from Brush Creek include the United States Forest Service and Frost Creek Golf Course. While these samples are not part of the River Watch program, they are also being used to inform watershed management decisions.
Nakae and Eagle River Watershed Council Education and Outreach Coordinator Rose Sandell take to four different sites along Brush Creek once a month to gather water samples and data that can later be reported into the River Watch steward database. From there, Colorado Parks and Wildlife reviews and validates the data before it is input into the River Watch state-wide water health information bank.
While monthly testing allows for a consistently available database of water quality readings, Nakae said that those readings aren’t able to determine how changing environmental factors directly influence water quality because there haven’t been complete studies done on each factor. However, with patterns, inferences can often be made about what influences water quality.
With the different testing sites along the creek, Nakae said spacial changes can be observed in water quality samples.
“Generally speaking, higher up in the watershed at the headwaters is where you’re going to have the highest water quality,” Nakae said. “Then, as you move down, you could see changes from different types of land use.”
“I think a big thing we’re seeing through the valley as development increases and population increases, you see water quality trends change with that,” Sandell said.
The four testing sites Nakae and Sandell gather samples from are spread out along Brush Creek. Nakae said that as the sites get closer to Eagle Ranch, homes, agriculture and golf courses can all have an effect on the water quality.
Additionally, Nakae said that water quality testing can also help with understanding different stressors wildlife may be enduring. For example, Nakae said elements like temperature, oxygen presence and pH levels have a big impact on a fish’s level of stress. Depending on water temperatures or dissolved oxygen levels, in the warmer months, she said Colorado Parks and Wildlife may issue a voluntary fishing closure so as to not stress fish further.
Volunteer stewards within the River Watch program statewide perform uniform tests so as to ensure accuracy and consistency among the state-wide readings. Eagle River Watershed Council executive director James Dilzell took the River Watch training and passed the skills on to Nakae and Sandell. However, in the Fall, Nakae and Sandell said they hope to take the River Watch training themselves.
Every month, River Watch volunteer stewards test for water hardness, dissolved oxygen, pH, alkalinity, and for the presence of hard metals in the water. While testing for these qualities helps give insight into the water quality, it also provides a hands-on opportunity for local youth to localize their education.
After collecting samples along Brush Creek every month, Sandell brings the samples and testing materials to Eagle Valley High School. There, in Nicole Mink’s science classes, students learn to test for water hardness, dissolved oxygen, pH and alkalinity. For safety reasons, metal testing on the samples is conducted at the Colorado Parks and Wildlife Laboratory in Fort Collins.
Eagle Valley students test the water samples almost immediately after they’re taken by Nakae and Sandell at the Brush Creek Sites. Unlike learning from a textbook, Sandell said going into the classroom with samples provides a hands-on opportunity for students to connect with the creeks in their area, while also learning crucial skills.
“When I was in high school, I never saw how chemistry was applicable. I was like, ‘I will never do this, but here I am,'” Sandell said. “I think putting it in front of them and being like, ‘This is your drinking water, ultimately, that’s what you’re testing right now,’ it gets them to care more.”
In-classroom titrations can be exciting when samples go from one color to another with the addition of another chemical, but Sandell said taking students for in-field testing is also a great way to engage young people in watershed health.
“Hopefully, when it warms up, we’ll be able to go out on a walking field trip to the Gypsum Creek so that they can collect their own water samples,” Sandell said of Mink’s earth science classes.
In the past, Sandell said she has done some field testing with students from Zealous Schools.
“I did River Watch with them one month and we came out here and we knocked on macroinvertebrates– or it’s called bug kicking,” Sandell said.
Different levels of macroinvertebrate diversity can help indicate different levels of water quality, Sandell explained. While the tests students were performing weren’t necessarily the most accurate, she explained that they were a great jumping-off point to get young people thinking about local watersheds and engaging with them.
“We live in such a beautiful place and there’s a significant part of the population that doesn’t have a way to access it and get involved,” Sandell said. “It’s nice when we can bring those opportunities to them and help them feel a little bit more comfortable in this space.”