The Colorado Footprint: How Citizen Scientists are Keeping Colorado Waterways Healthy
The South Fork of the Crystal River in Colorado. Photo Credit: The Greater Southwestern Exploration Company (Flickr)
Introducing The Colorado Footprint, a monthly column that follows stories about Colorado’s environment and the solutions-based projects, people, and ideas bettering the Centennial State. OutThere Colorado is driven by our deep respect for our environment, and our passionate commitment to sustainable tourism and conservation. We believe in the right for everyone – from all backgrounds and cultures – to enjoy our natural world, and we believe that we must all do so responsibly. This column aims to highlight those engaged in the vital work of protecting and preserving Colorado’s environment.
Chad Rudow slows his Prius to a crawl, pulling onto the dirt shoulder of Highway 133. Before he unbuckles, he glances west out the passenger-side window: Chair Mountain, a near-13,000-foot peak in the Elk Mountain Range, towers over the ruddy, sandstone terrain that straddles the Crystal River, which runs parallel to the highway.
Rudow gathers his tools—a caddy that holds an assortment of chemicals, rinse bottles, syringes, and filters; a small cooler with half a dozen water bottles; a backpack with gloves, a tape measure, and a camera; a clipboard that keeps the papers he’d printed in the office from blowing away. He starts to pick his way down the river bank, approaching the Crystal River’s rocky shore. Of the dozen or so water sites he monitors in the Roaring Fork Watershed, which extends from Aspen down the 40-mile valley to Glenwood Springs and encompasses about the same area as the state of Rhode Island, this one on the Crystal River is his favorite. But really any day in the field beats tapping the keyboard in his office, he says.
As Water Quality Coordinator for the Roaring Fork Conservancy, Rudow is there to collect water samples. When he’s done and the samples are processed, they’ll contribute information to a 30-year-old database that’s maintained by the state’s largest water health organization, the Colorado River Watch, as well as his own conservancy’s files.
Rudow wades into the river and dips a bottle in the stream, pulls it out once it’s full, and screws the lid on tight. He dips another in, fills it up, but then pours that sample into another, upright bottle that contains a liquid preservative that’ll later help the River Watch lab trace any present metals in the river. Another bottle he fills via syringe, and another yet via a filter. On the clipboard he notes the weather, the stream flow, and snaps a quick photo of the site.
“What we’re really doing,” Rudow says, “is collecting data that tells us a story of river health over a long period of time.”
More than 770,000 miles of river snake through Colorado’s landscape—quenching our thirst and our crops, but also providing a robust habitat for aquatic and non-aquatic life. Before 1989, the year the Colorado River Watch was founded by a Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW) biologist, CPW had little-to-no data about Colorado water system health. That meant only flimsy evidence was informing state-level decisions affecting river ecosystems and fisheries — decisions like what river standards should be set for optimal trout health, what policies should reflect a response to climate change, or what kind of aid a water sanctuary might need.
Now, nearly 30 years after its inception, the Colorado River Watch monitors 600 stations across 400 rivers, providing CPW the information it needs to conduct more localized aquatic investigations and ultimately shape policy that contributes to the wellbeing of Colorado’s waterways. Having a broad, deep database helps CPW understand the magnitude of changes that occur over time due to obvious and non-obvious human interference, and also more subtle climate changes. When a change in water quality is observed in the River Watch samples, it effectively shoots up a red flag calling for a deeper, localized investigation to learn more about why a change has occurred.
Like, for example, when Aspen’s Grizzly Reservoir drained into Lincoln Creek, a Roaring Fork River tributary in 2015. The drainage sent an alarming surge of sediment from the northern mining district downstream, and Rudow and his volunteer team were able to collect and compare present-day water samples with the historic database in order to understand how metal levels had changed after the drainage and how aquatic life could be affected. Ultimately CPW was able to reference the data as they formed a plan to maintain the ecosystem’s health.
Keeping such a consistent, reliable and accurate database wouldn’t be possible without the help of volunteers, says Sam Gilbertson, the Colorado River Watch Outreach Coordinator. “Depending on the year, we have 120-130 active groups. About 75 percent of those are school groups, while there are some nonprofit groups, watershed groups [like the Roaring Fork Conservancy], and individuals.”
In order to participate and contribute water samples, volunteers go through a rigorous four-day training that teaches basic water chemistry and intense sample-collecting procedures. Rudow says, “One of the key highlights of the River Watch program is that it’s taking citizens and actually doing real science. We do high caliber training and do a very thorough quality control program in order to generate high-enough quality data that it’s acceptable at the state level.”
Rudow thinks of himself as a sort-of intermediary agent, orchestrating a relationship between the Colorado River Watch and the two dozen Roaring Fork Valley volunteers who collect water samples bimonthly from their local streams and rivers. The volunteers give their water bottles to Rudow, who then delivers them to Denver, where the River Watch headquarters is located. The other 140 water-collection groups sprinkled around the state either have a similar model or will mail in the water samples as they are collected, Gilbertson explains.
“It’s really incredible the dedication we’ve received from groups wanting to do this,” Rudow says, mentioning a few volunteers who’ve been uninterrupted collecting data for the River Watch for more than 25 years. “It’s one of the largest citizen-science programs.”
Gilbertson says with only four people in the River Watch office, it would be impossible to gather the quality or the quantity of water data without the aid of students and organizations invested in Colorado’s water health. When the River Watch headquarters receives the samples, they send them to a lab in Fort Collins for analysis. “We make [the data] available to the public and to decision-makers,” he says.
In Rudow’s eyes, the magic of River Watch not only manifests in the high-quality data, but also in how it educates and involves everyday citizens. “At the local level, all of our volunteers doing all the water sampling for us are very engaged, asking me questions, like ‘We saw results what does that mean?’ They talk to their friends and help spread the message.”
On the Crystal River, Rudow finishes collecting samples within a half hour of arriving. He packs up, treks back to the car, and starts up the engine. Pointing the Prius’ nose north, he heads to another sample site upriver. “It’s really incredible,” he says with an uptick in his voice, “the dedication to water health.”