In 2016, a parasite outbreak on the Yellowstone River killed tens of thousands of fish, Resulting in a temporary river closure that cost hundreds of thousands of dollars in lost economic revenues…
And while both the parasite (Tetracapsuloides bryosalmonae, a relative of jellyfish, corals, and sea anemones) and the fish-killing disease (Proliferative Kidney Disease, or PKD) are known, questions remain about the environmental conditions driving the outbreak...
How YERC got Involved
YERC launched RiverNET, a community science water monitoring program, in 2018 in response to the call for better information coming from agency scientists and local residents alike. It’s goal is to improve the resolution of data on both water quality and quantity by increasing the frequency of water sampling and the density of water monitoring sensors, laying the groundwork for a long-term dataset to better analyze environmental changes — including the PKD outbreak but also droughts, changing land use patterns, anything that impacts the health of the river. We also want that information to be accessible and relatable to the local community; to have community members play an active role designing, implementing, and promoting the project; and to have the community effectively “take ownership” of the project, its results, and its long-term sustainability — that’s the community part of community science. Plus, we are designing a program that is scalable and transferable to other watershed in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, so it can benefit communities in other watersheds beyond the Upper Yellowstone.
The RiverNET community includes major partners Upper Yellowstone Watershed Group, Park County Environmental Council, Montana Trout Unlimited, Park and Sweet Grass conservation districts, Angler’s West Fly Fishing Outfitters in Emigrant, Sweetwater Fly Shop in Livingston, and many more local individuals and businesses. Funding comes from the Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation, sustaining members of our Adopt-A-River Program, and grants from the Montana Department of Environmental Quality and Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks.
Pilot Project Success
Our 2018 pilot year was a great success, as we:
Designed and tested a suite of low-cost, fast-turnaround, user-friendly tools and techniques to empower local water monitoring efforts
Collected nearly 150 water quality samples with the help of local fly fishing guides
Deployed three sensors that are continuously collecting data and transmitting it real-time via cellular or Bluetooth
Built positive relationships with individuals and businesses in the community as well as other researchers, conservationists, and resource managers working there
Worked with local K-12 educators to come up with ways to engage students in RiverNET — our crew even taught a streamside lesson for the Gardiner High School science class, using RiverNET methods to demonstrate the concept of scientific controls
And if anything, the success and momentum of RiverNET have only increased since that first season, as we have launched an “Adopt-a-River” program to generate sustaining revenues, secured a contract from Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks to lay the ground work for new sensor sites as well as funding for 5 more sensors, and designed a training module for the Guiding for the Future (G4F) fishing guide certification program.
How YOU can get Involved
There are lots of ways to get involved! You can:
View the data (below) and ask us questions about the things you are seeing
Participate in our regular citizen science data collection and community appreciation events in Paradise Valley
Join one of these projects and become a RiverNET volunteer field tech:
How to Read and Interpret the Data
Follow the links below to visualize and download our latest data, as well as read up on what parameters we are monitoring (and why), what natural and man-made factors affect them, what levels may be cause for concern, and what can be done to mitigate them.
But with these data, please be advised that they are provisional and subject to revision, and may be inaccurate due to equipment malfunctions and other issues, so should be used with caution until they are independently reviewed and finally approved. Users are cautioned to use these provisional data carefully before decisions that affect personal or public safety or business operations are made. Contact Patrick Cross at email@example.com for more information.
Water Quality Monitoring
We are monitoring a suite of water quality parameters that serve as indicators of watershed health in order to (1) Establish seasonal baselines, (2) Chart annual trends, and (3) Identify changing conditions or unnatural values that could be signs of impaired water quality. These parameters include:
Orthophosphate is a phosphorous compound that is essential for plant growth. Most phosphorous comes from the soil, although water can also be contaminated with excessive phosphorous from household waste such as cleaning products and other sources. Monitoring orthophosphate can therefore be a useful indicator of the impacts of residential development on water quality.
Nitrate + Nitrite
Nitrates and Nitrites are also essential nutrients for plant growth occurring in the soil, but contamination from fertilizers and sewage at levels greater than 10 mg/L in drinking water can impact human health, while in surface water it can cause impacts such as algae blooms that affect nutrient and oxygen levels necessary for fish and other aquatic life.
pH is a measure of acidity — the lower the pH value, the greater the acidity. Vinegar, for example, has a pH of 2.5, while on the other end of the spectrum, baking soda has a pH of 9. Pure drinking water typically has a pH around 7, although in the Upper Yellowstone River Watershed pH values are naturally a bit higher, around 8. Pollution can make those values increase or decrease, which affects how nutrients and minerals dissolve in the water, as well as the ability of plants and animals to use those nutrients and minerals, so it is important to maintain naturally neutral pH levels in a healthy watershed.
Total Nitrogen is a standard parameter for many other water quality monitoring programs run by state agencies and local efforts like RiverNET. By subtracting Nitrate and Nitrite values from this total of all nitrogen-based compounds, we can find out the concentration of other chemicals like ammonia that could indicate manure and septic runoff.
Total Phosphorus is also a standard water quality monitoring parameter, and when we subtract orthophosphate values, we can quantify concentrations of phosphorous compounds associated with household cleaning products.
Water Quantity Monitoring
Knowing the amount of water that is available, and when, is of critical importance whether you are an irrigator, a whitewater rafting guide, or a cutthroat trout conservationist. Knowing the quantity of water is also essential for correctly interpreting nutrient concentrations and fully understanding the water quality monitoring results. As a result, high resolution water quantity data is in great demand across all Upper Yellowstone River Watershed stakeholder groups. These parameters include:
Depth (Stage) and Flow (Discharge)
We deploy sensors that measure the current depth (in feet) at a predefined water level, collectively making the stream stage. We then convert this stage data to the discharge, or flow, which conveys the actual quantity of water flowing past the sensor in cubic feet per second. You can read more about the process we use to make these conversions in the technical documents below.
Technically more of a water quality parameter, these water temperature data are collected by the same sensors we use to monitor depth and flow and at the same frequency as those data, so it just makes sense to include it here.
Local, Sustainable Fundraising through
Our Adopt-a-River program provides another means of getting involved in RiverNET, by pledging to contribute sustaining $500 annual donations that go directly to RiverNET. Adopt-a-River donors are acknowledged by “adopting” a particular stretch of the Yellowstone River that is important to them. And if you are interested in participating, but see that your favorite stretch is already taken, don’t worry! we can always add new stretches as needed! The important thing is that RiverNET has dedicated annual funding, and that donors receive the recognition they deserve.