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Colorado's public lands are faced with new challenges but water and land management depend on working together. Read about the relationship between water and land in Colorado and how Coloradans are converging to restore Colorado's public lands in the Spring 2018 issue of Headwaters magazine.

Browse articles and find a flipbook of the magazine here.

Connecting the Drops

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Water Education Colorado

Citizen Water Brigade: Non-profits are mobilizing volunteer armies to protect water quality and restore degraded streams

By Laurie J. Schmidt

On a breezy April day last year, a group of hardy volunteers battled the chill in their efforts to restore a riparian corridor on Little Owl Creek, located in the Pawnee National Grasslands of northeastern Colorado. The Wildlands Restoration Volunteers crew spent the morning planting cottonwood cuttings in holes adjacent to the stream, which they intended to backfill after lunch. As the trees leaned in their unfilled holes, the lunchtime chatter suddenly quieted: Red-winged blackbirds were perched and singing on almost every new cottonwood. “Everyone just stood and watched,” says volunteer Jonathan Stauffer. “In that moment, we saw that the work we were doing was not only providing future habitat—it was immediately beneficial.”

It’s rewarding experiences like these that motivate volunteers to donate their time, expertise, and enthusiasm each year to the collective goal of protecting Colorado’s waters. With 100,000 miles of stream, a swelling population, and a landscape that attracts upwards of 20 million visitors each year, the state relies on volunteers—whether they’re collecting data or shoveling dirt—to protect and maintain watershed health.

The Colorado Water Quality Control Division monitors the water quality in each of the state’s river basins on a rotating basis once every five years. Dick Parachini, watershed program manager at the Division, acknowledges that it’s difficult for the state to sample often enough to know what’s going on. “You cannot say that you know the quality of all water bodies in the state at any one time,” he says. “It is physically impossible.” In addition to the sheer breadth of water sampling sites that need to be monitored, water quality is always fluctuating. “Water is scarce here, so we use it over and over again,” Parachini explains. “Every time you divert it for irrigation, every time you go from tap to toilet, and every time water flows out of an urban stormwater drain, you change the quality.”

And the recent economic crisis has kept monitoring budgets static, despite rising costs. “Every year, we sample fewer and fewer sites because the cost of analysis has gone up,” says Parachini.

Working in tandem with the Division is the Colorado Water Quality Control Commission—a nine-member group appointed by the governor to develop Colorado’s water-quality policy and regulations. In accordance with the Clean Water Act, the Commission issues a list every two years of state water bodies that fail to meet standards, known as the 303(d) list. The 2008 list disclosed 257 water quality impairments, with some streams listed multiple times for different pollutants, ranging from selenium to zinc and lead. Charged with the responsibility of adopting the state’s water quality standards in the first place, the Commission needs sufficient data or such decisions may be made in the dark.

In the late 1980s, Barb Horn, water resource specialist with the Colorado Division of Wildlife, was beginning to get a clear picture of just how much data is needed to monitor the state’s waters. “I would attend the Commission’s basin rulemaking hearings and see that people were making water quality decisions with little or no data,” she says. So Horn figured out where many of the data gaps were and designed a program called River Watch, framed around the question: What can kids do? “If you think about starting a volunteer program and delivering a consistent product and service, you need a consistent volunteer base,” says Horn. “We selected teachers and students because we knew they were always going to be there.”

Through River Watch, volunteer groups contract to monitor one or more stations 12 times a year, analyzing the collected samples for hardness, alkalinity, temperature and dissolved oxygen. Other samples are sent to a professional lab for analysis of metals, nutrients and macro-invertebrates. Although middle and high school students make up about 60 percent of River Watch volunteers, the program also receives individual volunteers, citizen groups, colleges and local governments.

Since the program began in 1989, over 70,000 volunteers have helped acquire data from 3,000 monitoring stations on more than 300 rivers in Colorado. “River Watch fills gaps by being everywhere all the time and in smaller watersheds,” says Horn. “We are a very cost-effective way to do this work.”

The program also includes a strong educational component. For example, says Horn, “If you teach participants why they should care about dissolved oxygen, they can take that with them and articulate why oxygen is important for the river in any community.”

Horn stresses that River Watch doesn’t interpret the data—rather, its goal is to collect useable data that can be passed on to decision makers. “A typical teacher is absolutely content just knowing that the data are being used, even if they aren’t the agent making change happen.”

Rob Buirgy, then, was not a typical teacher. In 1991, two of his chemistry students at Loveland’s Thompson Valley High School asked if they could use river water for their phosphorus analysis assignment. They took instruments down to the Big Thompson River, brought back the results, and unexpectedly sparked a student water monitoring program that lasted 15 years.

By 1993, Buirgy had turned the project into an elective science course for seniors. Enthusiasm for the “SWAT Team”—as the students called their Sample Water And Test it group—spread rapidly, so Buirgy started looking for experts to teach his class about the regulatory process as well. Enter Barb Horn and River Watch. “One of Barb’s key visions for River Watch was to have students get involved in the regulatory process,” says Buirgy. “In my classroom, we had the perfect storm of opportunity.”
With the assistance of experts like Dave Dubois of the North Front Range Water Quality Planning Association and Paul Frohardt at the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, Buirgy began teaching his students about state water quality regulations. While reviewing standards for the Big Thompson, the students realized that existing regulations might not be adequate to protect people.

So, for two years, the team conducted a survey throughout Thompson School District high schools to find out how many students were participating in recreational activities such as tubing, wading and fishing on the Big Thompson. “The results of that survey demonstrated that there were existing uses that nobody really knew about,” says Buirgy. “It didn’t take the students long to figure it out, and they were chomping at the bit to do something about it.”

With help from the city of Loveland, Buirgy’s students presented a proposal to the Water Quality Control Commission to change regulations on the Big Thompson from Recreation Class 2 to Recreation Class 1, which is suitable for activities during which users might ingest small amounts of water. The Commission adopted the higher standard. “It was the first time students had ever made a presentation to the Commission, much less a successful proposal to change the standards,” says Buirgy.

The experience had another valuable outcome—getting kids interested in science. More than 300 students participated in Buirgy’s Thompson River Project, and he says a number of his former students have pursued careers in science and water fields. Likewise, Horn says many River Watch kids have gone on to pursue careers in water. “I know of two who work at wastewater treatment plants and several who became teachers and are now doing River Watch with their own students,” she says.

Buirgy himself became such a strong advocate of water quality monitoring that he started the Big Thompson Watershed Forum, a joint effort with local water utilities and citizen volunteers to address water quality and ecological issues in the Big Thompson Watershed. According to Zack Shelley, who assumed leadership of the forum when Buirgy retired, the forum is now considered a model for watershed planning, garnering Larimer County’s Environmental Stewardship Award in 2008 and serving as a template for similar coalition and volunteer groups.

Other watershed groups have also used River Watch to start programs that have evolved into more complex monitoring programs. A year after it was founded in 1996, the Roaring Fork Conservancy joined River Watch. Now, its water quality monitoring program hosts about 30 volunteers who monitor 22 sites throughout the Roaring Fork watershed, which encompasses 1,450 square miles in central Colorado. “We now monitor more water quality stations than any other single entity in the River Watch program,” says Chad Rudow, water quality coordinator for the Roaring Fork Conservancy.

The organization goes beyond sampling and produces a local water quality report based on the River Watch data. The report has helped the watershed group prioritize and work proactively at improving water quality on the streams most in need.

The range of water-related volunteer work goes well beyond water quality sampling. Watershed crises often trigger organized volunteer efforts ranging from stream restoration to sediment removal.

In 1998, the Sierra Club filed a lawsuit against the city of Colorado Springs and the U.S. Forest Service, alleging that maintenance activities on the Pikes Peak Highway violated provisions of the Clean Water Act. The last 11 miles of the 19-mile highway are unpaved, and the city continually replaces gravel that erodes away after each storm. About 10 to 20 percent of those materials end up in the adjacent streams and wetlands, according to Eric Billmeyer, executive director of the Rocky Mountain Field Institute, which works with federal, state and local land management agencies to address critical preservation and restoration needs in the southern Rocky Mountains and Colorado Plateau region. “We had stream channels eroding down 2 or 3 feet and wetlands buried in 3 to 6 feet of sediment,” says Billmeyer.

Through the field institute, a coordinated volunteer effort has completed revegetation and erosion control tasks. The in-kind contribution of volunteer labor is valued at $188,000 so far, according to Billmeyer. “We’ve now restored almost two miles of stream, and with the amount of degraded area, there’s just no way we could do it without the volunteers,” he says.

Although the lawsuit was settled in 2000, with the provision that the city must pave the remaining 11 miles of the Pikes Peak Highway by 2012, Billmeyer says that with over 120 gully channels needing attention, the volunteer project will go on long after the road is paved.

Those involved in coordinating volunteer groups are continually impressed by the citizen commitment level. “These are not your typical ‘volunteer-all-the-time-for-everything’ kind of people. These are people who have picked a project as being important, and they show up,” says Dave Stiller, executive director of the North Fork River Improvement Association, which works on the North Fork of the Gunnison River.

Showing up is something Jonathan Stauffer excels at. As a volunteer and technical adviser for Wildlands Restoration Volunteers, he’s logged time on close to 30 projects in just two seasons. In his paid job as a surface water hydrologist, Stauffer finds himself immersed in paperwork and regulatory reports. Volunteering for WRV gets him out in the field. “WRV is an organization that focuses on implementation,” he says. “For me, it’s really important that we spend time on the ground actually restoring natural systems degraded by human and natural impacts.”

Horn knows others with dedication rivaling Stauffer’s. Several of her adult volunteers’ sampling efforts require a three- to four-day commitment each month. “They’re that passionate about their river,” she says.

That passion translates to an infinite number of additional data points for water quality monitoring—points that might otherwise be left out of a state monitoring program stretched to its limits. “As long as volunteers are following agreed-upon protocols and they can document their quality assurance procedures, we will take the data,” says Parachini.

Horn says River Watch data have been used for 20 years and are accessed regularly by a number of users, including the health department, water consultants, educational institutions, lawyers and water managers. And the program’s value as an educational tool for the schools involved is undeniable.

River Watch data will prove invaluable once again when the Water Quality Control Commission adopts Colorado’s first nutrient standards in 2011. The EPA asked the state to begin developing nutrient criteria, which will address nutrient-enrichment in water bodies as opposed to toxicity, in 2000. Since that time, the Division has been collecting its own data, but the Division’s standards unit manager Sarah Johnson says, “A big player in this is River Watch. [They’ve] been stalwart in collecting the data and making it available.”  

That partnership between concerned citizens and the state will allow the Commission to make better-informed decisions regarding the nutrient standards that Johnson believes are “an important piece of protecting Colorado’s ecosystems and water quality.”
“I don’t really see this as a gap in the state’s monitoring efforts,” says Buirgy. “Rather, if the state’s monitoring fabric is a little loosely woven, we can certainly weave it tighter with data collected by volunteers.”

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