As the White River turns green again, work to seek a solution begins

Algae bloom causing problems with water intake screens in Rangely area

The overgrowth of green algae in the White River just below Sleepy Cat is estimated to cover 80 percent of the riverbed. The algae problem begins upriver from Meeker and reportedly continues the length of the river into Utah. REED KELLEY photo

RBC | What Rio Blanco County Commissioner Si Woodruff envisioned as a small core group meeting to discuss the problems and needs of the water quality in the White River expanded Tuesday to more than 25 participants who share a deep concern for the river’s health. Individuals from Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW), Town of Rangely, Kenney Reservoir, U.S. Geological Survey, upriver fishing industry interests, Trout Unlimited, local conservation districts, U.S Forest Service, Natural Resources Conservation Service, Bureau of Land Management and private citizens contributed to the discussion.
Former high school science instructor and Meeker physician, Dr. Bob Dorsett, who volunteers for the CPW/Colorado Watershed Assembly Meeker area, Colorado River Watch program, provided a PowerPoint presentation incorporating his personal investigations, those of others, and his review of available data from several sources. Dorsett laid out what he believes is going on with the river while identifying knowledge gaps and acknowledging his conclusions aren’t necessarily the final answer.
For at least the third or fourth year, the river is experiencing an overgrowth of green algae, or an algae bloom. There is also now an overgrowth of a brownish, mat and stalk-forming algal diatom which may not be the specific species referred to as “rock snot,” but is something similar. Recent estimation of green algae coverage of the river bottom is virtually zero up the North Fork at the Lost Creek confluence. This increases to about 40 percent coverage near the County Road 14 turnoff; to 80 percent near Westlands two miles below the Pot Hole Ranch and at Sleepy Cat; continues at about 80 percent down to the Mesa Road Bridge; and to 90 percent now through Meeker. River water temperatures don’t seem to be an issue as they are holding relatively steady all the way down to Meeker and over time. The South Fork does not appear to have the problem.
Dorsett reported that the macroinvertebrate (bug) life in the river gradually decreases downstream from “good” at Lost Creek to the Meeker area where counts actually indicate the river is “impaired” with regard to bug life. Dissolved oxygen (D.O.) analysis in the river at Meeker shows a decrease from 9.1 mg/L to 6.0 mg/L overnight, indicating a big draw on available oxygen while oxygen saturation drops from 101 percent to 62 percent. Dorsett said the latter figure should be at 80 through town.
Rangely representatives stated they are having serious problems with their water intake screens, having to remove as much as 100 pounds of algal material from the screens twice daily during heavy bloom. The green algae bloom reportedly runs all the way to the Green River confluence in Utah.
Dorsett suggested many factors may be contributing to the situation, not one single cause. These may include excess nutrients; engineered changes in river hydraulics, especially as they might affect sediment loading; incubation of algae in riverside fishing ponds; insecticide applications, most notably from aerial spraying; changes in the flow of the river (hydrograph); and human activity in river use. As for changing flows, earlier and lower spring flows were noted.
The excess nutrients could come from fertilizers, increased livestock grazing and winter feeding, leaky or old, poorly maintained septic systems as well as the increased number of new systems, and the feeding of fish. A recent change in the type of insecticide used in the aerial spraying—to one that may be more detrimental to algae-grazing bug life and persist longer—was also discussed.
Possible actions to mitigate against these factors included advising fishermen and other stream users to effectively clean their gear and boats. To this point, CPW area manager Bill deVergie said such educational signs were on their way and would be installed soon.
Other actions include minimizing or eliminating fertilizer as well as animal waste runoff, the use of commercial fish food, insecticide use along and near the river, and river dredging (believed to improve fish habitat) and pond construction.
Quite a bit of time was spent discussing the need for more data collection and analysis—and, as part of this, agreeing to sampling and data protocols that would allow multiple data sources over time to be useful and compatible.
White River National Forest fisheries biologist Clay Ramey from Glenwood Springs suggested that the community consider forming a watershed council which could be funded to provide personnel and an active focus on the river issues while involving multiple stakeholders and government agencies in advisory and supporting roles. There seemed to be a strong consensus that something like this—definitely a continuing collaborative effort—would be a good idea. Ken Lieb, USGS Western Colorado Office Chief from Grand Junction, indicated that for some time now this kind of concerted cooperative effort has been needed in the White River watershed and he’s enthused to see that this group may be headed that way.