THAT TIME FORGOT
Environmental Students Help Guard Watershed Health
By CAROLINE LUPFER KURTZ
The phone rings. It's the Montana Department of Environmental Quality. The agency is looking for information about remote streams of the state's northern plains. This sounds like a job for student researchers in UM's Watershed Health Clinic.
"Our main purpose [in this project] was to assess nutrient levels in 10 tributaries of the Milk River, none of which had been studied before," says John Lhotak, an environmental studies master's candidate. "Currently the state bases standards for these streams on standards developed for streams in western Montana, which are completely different systems."
He says the DEQ would like to understand how dams and other water uses affect aquatic life and physical conditions of the Milk River watershed and what, if anything, should be done to mitigate such impacts.
In 2001, Lhotak compiled information on nutrient levels — the amounts of nitrogen and phosphorus present — and physical characteristics of each stream. He now is writing his thesis from the project. Fellow graduate student Marianne Zugel revisited some of Lhotak's streams in 2002 and extended the project to seven more in the extreme northeast corner of the state.
Lhotak, Zugel and those who helped them racked up serious tire time traveling from Missoula to Glasgow — the nearest town to their study area with a store that sold the dry ice needed to preserve water samples. From Glasgow they would head into the hinterland for a week to measure and sample, then return to Glasgow for more dry ice to last the trip home to Missoula. They each repeated their circuit several times.
"The WHC provides a great chance to get out there and learn the field methods needed to do water-quality research," Lhotak says.
Thanks to that opportunity and his undergraduate degree in geography, Lhotak recently was hired as an intern hydrologist with the National Weather Service.
Students who participate in the WHC are used to taking initiative and helping each other. They also learn to put their research into action, not only by accumulating hard data, but by making recommendations to help communities and agencies prioritize and tackle specific local water-quality issues.
"The Watershed Health Clinic was conceived to put science in the service of communities and protect natural systems," says environmental studies Professor Vicki Watson, one of the driving forces behind the clinic's success for the past 15 years.
"For students the clinic is an opportunity to get scientific experience — often for the first time — and to realize they can go the next step with that information," she says. "They're not just studying something, but trying to work with citizen groups that want to do something to improve the environment, that want to know whether there is a problem and what to do about it, and that need the best information to make their decisions."
Undergraduate and graduate students in the Environmental Studies Program choose to participate in the clinic. Requests for help come to Watson, who also does much of the grant development for the studies, and the students as a group decide who will lead each project.
Students in the Watershed Health Clinic take a holistic approach to water-quality problems. In addition to in-stream studies, they also tackle projects aimed at restoring natural watershed conditions, such as replanting native vegetation along O'Brien, Bear, Pearson and Warren creeks. They also help restore uplands by removing invasive weeds, which in turn reduces the need to use herbicides. They even work to protect Missoula's drinking-water aquifer by collecting household hazardous waste for disposal and stenciling storm drains to deter dumping wastes. And they help train a new generation of watershed guardians by taking schoolchildren on monitoring field trips.
Some of the clinic's studies are long term and involve many students, such as the ongoing monitoring of Clark Fork River nuisance algae, which in some places grows so thick it completely chokes the river. On warm summer nights, such excess plant growth can lower the oxygen content of the water. More often it clogs ditches, interferes with fishing and alters the insect communities that live in the river. As one of the longest and most complete data sets on river algae, the study has been used by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to set national nutrient and algae criteria and was essential to developing the Voluntary Nutrient Reduction Plan for the Clark Fork River.
Other WHC projects are specific responses to community requests for help. For example, Sean Sullivan, who received his undergraduate degree in May, spent the last year conducting a watershed assessment of Lolo Creek for the Missoula Water Quality District. This is the first comprehensive study to be made of Lolo Creek, which provides water for agriculture, industry and a growing population, from its Bitterroot Mountain headwaters to Travelers' Rest State Park, near the confluence with the Bitterroot River. At five evenly spaced sites, Sullivan described the creek's physical character, communities of aquatic insects and nutrient concentrations. His baseline information will be of great use for future studies, such as one being undertaken by a Lolo community group on the quality of the fishery in the watershed.
Matt Coen, another environmental studies graduate, has a similar perspective. He recently worked with the Lakeside Community Council and the Flathead Basin Commission on a study of the chemical, physical and biological characteristics of Stoner Creek. The purpose was to identify points of concern — especially the source of excess sediment and nutrients.
"I liked being involved with the community to help people decide what approach to take in solving [some of these issues]," Coen says. In fact, he has been hired to speak with school and public groups to inform them about the creek and its problems and to help citizens sort out their values and priorities for their water resource.
"I'm not just strictly interested in research any more," he says. "I might do the best science possible but if the results just sit in a filing cabinet, what's the point?"
In helping communities safeguard the health of their watersheds, Vicki Watson says, the Watershed Health Clinic helps students transition from the classroom to the real world.
"We try to get students to look at the larger picture," Watson says. "What changes have happened at the land-water interface and back into the watershed? What causes the problems we see and what could reduce these problems without causing a whole chain of other problems? You can't just look at one question; you need to look at the whole system."
Related link: Watershed Health Clinic