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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.

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Water Education Colorado

Water Quality 411

By Marcia Darnell

Not so long ago, four state, federal and local agencies were extracting water quality samples from the same place in the same West Slope river. They didn't always share what they found, or what they knew.

Now, locally-driven water quality monitoring groups have sprung up all over Colorado. Environmental groups, cities, towns and water managers, as well as businesses and individuals, are coming together to help avoid duplication and claim a stake in the water quality of their local rivers and lakes.

‘These local groups got going because they wanted to identify [water quality] issues in their own communities and have some say in how to fix them,’ says Dan Beley of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.
To help get started many of the groups formed partnerships with the U.S. Geological Survey, which has been testing water and monitoring stream flows across the nation for over a century, and which also helps fund the watershed groups' efforts. The grass-roots groups also have gone to the state and local donors for help.

While the state is involved and interested, points out Beley, they simply can't take a lead role in each watershed. ‘It just comes down to a matter of resources, and [the state] can't sample everything everywhere.’ So, local watershed groups team up to collect and interpret information about the health of local rivers, then share it with their communities and the state. The state then offers up technical assistance and participation from the likes of Beley and the other watershed coordinators at the state department of health and environment.

A Holistic Grand County Approach
Granby is home to the Grand County Water Information Network, established in April 2004, when Director Sarah Clements helped consolidate the efforts of several groups engaged in water quality monitoring and education.
The network's 42 overall members include towns, water districts, Denver Water, the Colorado River Water Conservation District, Climax Molybdenum Mine, Winter Park Resort and private individuals. Among its associate members are the state health department, U.S. Bureau of Land Management and the USGS. Member fees help fund the fledgling organization.

‘We provide [water quality] information to our members and the general public so the land use managers and the county and the different entities can make decisions,’ says Clements.

The cumulative water quality effects of diversions, development, roads and agricultural runoff are some of the group's primary concerns. These activities can increase sediment and nutrient levels in nearby rivers and creeks, to the detriment of fish habitat and overall stream health. The group also keeps an eye on potential problems caused by the large diversions of water taken from the Fraser River by Denver Water and others. The resulting low flows, says Clements, contribute to higher water temperatures, algae and weed growth.

‘We're not a political group. We can't lobby, and because we have members on both sides of the table, we're trying to strive for water quality solutions by providing data and looking at the systems holistically. What we can (do is) help decision makers make wiser choices.’ To see collected data visit, www.co.grand.co.us/water quality.

Upper Gunnison Stakeholders Take Root
Farther south, a similar locally-run water quality monitoring network is entering its 10th year. Here, 11 local and federal government agencies plus private individuals and the USGS sponsor the Upper Gunnison Basin Water Monitoring Stakeholder Group.

Tyler Martineau coordinates the sponsors' monitoring activities, facilitates several meetings each year and distributes data. The federal government provides 40 to 45 percent of the organization's funding, and local cooperators come up with the remainder.

Concerns about the effects of land development, stricter environmental regulations, and mining impacts drive the monitoring agenda. ‘Every year we decide what we're monitoring, where we're monitoring, and coordinate that,’ Martineau explains.
In the Gunnison area, the USGS collects the samples and does the lab work. Jim Kircher, director of USGS Colorado Water Science Center, stresses how these cooperative agreements benefit both the USGS and local interests.

‘We get increased knowledge of water quality and stream flow,’ he says. ‘Our interest is a better understanding of water quality and quantity in the nation. Through these partnerships we can gather data that contributes to our national network of information.’

In the Upper Gunnison, the stakeholders prepare summaries of conditions and trends in the basin, then post the data on the USGS Web site co.water.usgs.gov/cf/gunnisoncf.

‘That data has a lot of different possibilities,’ says Martineau. ‘It can be used by counties; it can be used by the state (for development, water management, grants). In one instance it's been used to designate Coal Creek [near Crested Butte] as a federal Superfund site.

‘It's being used in another part of the [Gunnison] basin as part of an overall plan to remediate pollution from mine waste. A watershed plan is being developed for that clean-up at Henson Creek, near Lake City.’

Martineau's group has been around for 10 years, and he's headed it for seven. A biologist and civil engineer, Martineau emphasizes the cooperation and local involvement at the core of the organization's function.

‘Our group is an informal coalition of local and federal government entities that have gathered together to collect data cooperatively, because we feel that cooperation maximizes the cost-efficiency of the program and it maximizes the benefit for the community,’ he says. ‘It's a heckuva lot better than everybody running out and doing it on their own.’

The stakeholders also keep their eyes on the future. ‘Every three years we look at our program and see where we need to go next,’ says Martineau. ‘We hope to continue what we have been doing. We're actively recruiting new sponsors to include other constituencies, other interests in the basin. We've been working to make our data more accessible to the public and decision makers, and making the best use of our water quality monitoring dollars. Are we collecting the data that will be the most useful for the money we've expended? That's a perennial issue.’

Martineau has high hopes for the stakeholder group. ‘When the program started, we pulled together a group of very diverse governments to support this program,’ he recalls. ‘At its outset it included a county, a water conservation district and three municipalities. I thought that was unique and exciting, getting these entities together whose interests are different …They've all stuck with it for 10 years, and others have joined in. And I think that's what's noteworthy about this program—the diversity of interests that have come together and cooperated in this effort.’

Testing the Big Thompson
Not every watershed gets its own forum, but some watersheds get lucky.

The Big Thompson Watershed Forum has been around in various forms since 1997. Based in Loveland, the forum is also a USGS partner, funded primarily by the cities of Loveland, Fort Collins and Greeley, the Soldier Canyon Treatment Plant, and the Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District.

About 10 years ago, almost a dozen different agencies were monitoring water quality in the Big Thompson River Valley. When the forum started, one of its major directives was to eliminate that duplication of effort, says executive director Rob Buirgy. Now those same agencies may still collect water samples, but they monitor in different locations or focus on specific issues of interest.

Water quality issues in the Big Thompson watershed include elevated inputs of nutrients like phosphorous and nitrogen, sediment and pathogens (disease causing organisms). ‘Nutrients are our number one priority, particularly phosphorus,’ Buirgy says. ‘It's a pervasive, serious issue.’

Across the state and nationwide, high levels of nutrients are tied to algal blooms and fish habitat loss. An over-abundance of algae makes for increased maintenance of ditches and lakes, and poor recreation. Blue-algae can be toxic and has even been tied to livestock and pet deaths.

Just like a suburban lawn, algae need nitrogen and phosphorus to grow. On the Front Range, phosphorus is the limiting element, meaning that even slightly elevated inputs of phosphorus to a river system can trigger significant growth of algae.

Will buying low-phosphorus detergent help? Not necessarily, says Buirgy. ‘This isn't just about dish-washing detergents,’ he explains. ‘Mammal feces are just naturally loaded with phosphorus.’ Part of the answer is advanced wastewater treatment, a costly proposition. To make it more difficult, the state doesn't yet regulate phosphorus in the Big Thompson watershed, or in many areas of the state. It's going to take time, more monitoring and many hours of collaborative effort to reach community-level agreement about how best to clean up these local waterways.

That's what the forum is for. Local water quality monitoring networks offer an opportunity for local people to take initiative and have a say in what's important for the health of their rivers and lakes.

‘Unless you have a basin with a highly interested group of stakeholders, or you get on the state's list of impaired waters, there is rarely any good quality baseline data for an unregulated pollutant like phosphorus,’ Buirgy notes.

Like other networks, the forum aims to provide unbiased information to assist local decision-makers. Water quality reports and data are provided on the forum's Web site, www.btwatershed.org. Forum staff is available to make presentations about their findings and projects to interested groups all over the state.

And it seems to be making a difference. The group just received an EPA 2005 Environmental Achievement Award for significant achievements in the protection of public health and the environment.

Monitoring Groups in Your Area
In addition to the three groups mentioned here, there are many local water quality monitoring networks around the state. Contact the Colorado Watershed Assembly at 970-484-3678 for more information about local water quality monitoring networks in your watershed.

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