White River Algae Study Update

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Colorado Parks and Wildlife technicians collect aquatic bugs from the White River streambed as part of a study on causes of algal bloom.

RBC | The White River Algae Study is beginning to wind down the second year of data collection. The goal of the study is to determine what is driving algal growth in the White River.

The 2019 White River flows peaked at nearly 5,000 cubic feet per second (cfs) compared to about 2,000 cfs in 2018. Additionally, there was an extended run-off period providing a great contrast in data for the first two years of the White River Algae Study. 

Local citizens were heavily involved in the White River Algae Study this spring and summer. White River and Douglas Creek Conservation Districts’ manager Tristan Nielsen collected water samples and Meeker Sanitation District manager, Kurt Nielsen, tested the samples for nitrate levels to determine if/when levels were high enough for the United States Geological Survey (USGS) to collect and test isotopes. 

As the runoff subsided, multiple citizens took pictures weekly and/or daily to assist in identifying the peak algae bloom for USGS data collection. In 2018 the peak algae bloom occurred in mid-July however, in 2019 it didn’t occur until mid to late August in the upper stretches of the White River. During the last week of August Rio Blanco County surveyor Leif Joy, flew the river to take pictures with a drone. Local resident Bob Regulski installed a continuous video and temperature gauge that were streamed live to several agencies for constant monitoring access. It is reported that there is much less filamentous green algae (Cladophora) this year. 

Based on the scope of work developed by the White River Technical Advisory Group (TAG), USGS continues to utilize 20 semi-random sites above Meeker for data collection. During the month of June, multiple USGS staff members completed scouring flow measurements, Isotopic sampling at nine sites (four of which had enough nitrate for lab analysis), and a pre-peak algae nutrient synopsis.

In order to complement the USGS algae study, Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW) and Trout Unlimited (TU) are collecting stream temperature and benthic macroinvertebrate (“aquatic bug”) data.

In the fall of 2018, CPW and TU collected bug samples from a total of 10 sites on the North Fork (4), South Fork (3), and main stem of the White River (3). The bug samples were submitted to a lab for analyses and the calculation of site-specific multimetric index (MMI) scores. In simple terms, an MMI score is a quantitative indicator of stream health.  Another preliminary finding of interest was that average MMI scores did not differ significantly between the North and South forks of the White River. CPW and TU will gather additional bug data this fall.

Earlier this year, CPW and TU deployed two data-logging temperature sensors at 19 of the 20 USGS sampling sites. The sensors, which are protected by short lengths of metal pipe and anchored to the streambed, record stream temperature every hour on the hour.  Anyone finding an unsecured temperature logger in the river is asked to bring it to the CPW office in Meeker.

Additionally, CPW installed one time-lapse camera on the main stem of the White River. The camera is set to take two pictures of the river each day. Pictures from the camera will be used to monitor the duration of visible algae and determine when peak algal growth occurred.

In the coming weeks USGS will be processing all samples collected in August to be sent to appropriate laboratories.  Results will be looked at and compared to 2018 at a cursory level for discussion at the next TAG meeting. It is anticipated the scouring flow data will be analyzed in November and isotope data results will be interpreted as soon as they are received from the lab. 

The next White River Algae Technical Advisory Group (TAG) meeting will likely be in November or December, after the agencies have the opportunity to complete more analyses and can share preliminary findings.

The White River and Douglas Creek Conservation Districts (Districts) wish to thank the financial contributors to the 2019 Algae study: Colorado River Conservation District, Colorado State Conservation Board (matching grant program through White River and Douglas Creek Conservation Districts), Elk Creek Ranch, Meeker Sanitation, Rio Blanco Water Conservancy District, Rob & Melani Walton Foundation, Town of Meeker, Trout Unlimited, Westlands Ranch, Yampa/White/Green Basin Roundtable—Water Supply Reserve Fund, and United States Geological Survey (USGS).  Additionally, the Districts thank the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) for providing equipment, Rio Blanco County for provided staff time and equipment to capture photographs of the river with a drone, and Colorado Parks and Wildlife and Trout Unlimited for continuing the studies that complement the USGS Scope of Work as noted above.

For more information on the White River Algae Study, please visit the Districts’ website at www.whiterivercd.com or contact the District office at 970-878-9838.

By CALLIE HENDRICKSON | Special to the Herald Times