THIS MONTH'S ISSUE:
On a bright autumn morning Vicki Watson dips her net into Pattee Creek and scoops up a load of critters and crud from the stream bed. She swings her dripping catch to a group of eighth-graders waiting nearby with counting trays and clipboards.
Yuck, is the general consensus. But with Watsons help the students soon set to work sorting and counting the various kinds of tiny aquatic insects present. A bit downstream another group measures water temperature, while upstream others calculate the creeks flow rate using a stick and stopwatch.
The students belong to Teresa Tollers science class from Washington Middle School in Missoula. The class visits the neighborhood creek twice a year to document its changing conditions and learn about the importance of watersheds, even small ones, to the environment and to their lives.
A professor of environmental studies at UM, Watson spends about 20 percent of her time working on water issues with schools, community organizations and government agencies.
Montanans love their lakes and streams, Watson says, and put a high value on water quality. But a lot of Montanas water is in trouble, and only informed citizens, acting together, can do something about it.
A watershed is an area of land that drains to a common body of water. This drainage can be as small as a mountain creek or as large as the Clark Fork River, which collects water from Butte to Sandpoint, Idaho, and channels it into the Columbia River.
According to Watson, watersheds need CPR conservation, preservation and restoration. Watersheds can sustain only so much human activity, she says, and therefore the number of undeveloped watersheds must be conserved. Stream beds and banks, riparian zones and flood plains are essential to the normal functioning of a watershed and must be preserved in their near-natural state. And where watersheds have been damaged by too many roads or too many homes built on stream banks, or by poor mining, logging or grazing practices, they must be restored.
Preservation is the term that usually causes most public resistance, Watson says, because protecting critical watershed areas often is assumed to conflict with private property rights.
But preservation does not mean locking up land from human use, she says. Flood plains and riparian zones absorb floods, provide wildlife habitat, purify water and give us beautiful scenery. These areas work hard for us and can only do their job when they are protected from development.
Watershed house calls
If your watershed is under the weather or your creek is running a temperature, call the clinic. We make house calls, Watson quips. For now, the clinic can be reached at (406) 243-5153.
The clinic gives students an opportunity to work on their people skills, Watson says, and to get real experience assessing watersheds, developing monitoring strategies and recruiting and training volunteers. In return, the partnering agency receives detailed information on which to base a plan of action. The emphasis of the clinic, Watson says, is on helping local groups better understand their watersheds so they can act to protect them.
People get excited taking action to protect what is in their backyards, she says.
She hopes that by working to protect local watersheds, another generation will be inspired to protect their environment the way recycling inspired people in the 1970s.
As part of a national initiative to foster more community-service learning among students, the University last year gave the clinic a grant that will defray some out-of-pocket expenses students incur while working on watershed projects in different parts of the state.
People are often surprised at what simple measurements are needed to assess their watershed, Watson says. The key is making the measurements over many years.
In her opinion, the best instruments are a pair of well-trained eyes, plus a thermometer, net, tape measure, watch and camera. Government sources usually can supply any needed additional information.
The University System and state government offer many resources for watershed groups. The Montana Watercourse provides Know Your Watershed workshops and volunteer monitor training and loans out necessary equipment. The Montana Water Center has an informative Web page. Watson is developing an online watershed course for the public; a related slide show can be found online at the UM Watershed Health Clinic.
How green is my river?
In the Clark Fork River, for example, heavy algae growths clog irrigation ditches, interfere with recreation and, at times, lower oxygen and pH enough to release heavy metals from river sediments, violating water-quality standards. Watson is a member of a team of experts convened by the Environmental Protection Agency in 1995 to address the problem of nuisance algae and develop guidance for states.
One of the main causes of increased algal growth, she says, is increased nutrient loads from the watershed from growing cities, cattle confined near streams or the destruction of natural filters like wetlands. But algae also can get worse because trees were cut near a stream, allowing more light to reach the water surface or because natural scouring floods are reduced by artificial controls on stream flow.
Pollution is not always the culprit behind algae or any other water- quality problem, Watson says. Sometimes the watershed itself has been altered and needs to be restored.
Nevertheless, research by Watson and others indicated that controlling nutrient loading to the Clark Fork was an important part of reducing nuisance algae. For more than 10 years, Watson has worked with the state Department of Environmental Quality and local stakeholders to understand the role of nutrients and develop a plan for controlling them.
This past summer, Stone Container Corp., the city and county of Missoula and the cities of Butte and Deer Lodge signed an agreement to reduce the nutrients they add to the Clark Fork. Watson and graduate student Jim Harris now are working with the state and the Missoula County Health Department to identify current and potential future watershed projects that would reduce the amount of nutrients coming off the land.
Watershed keeping is like housekeeping or democracy keeping, Watson says. It never stops, and its everybodys responsibility.