By Shannon Williamson
Lake Pend Oreille Waterkeeper (LPOW) recently wrapped up its sixth year of seasonal water quality monitoring, which is kind of a big deal. Why? Because this program is fueled almost 100 percent by the power of volunteers. In think it’s pretty spectacular that a group of volunteer citizen scientists march out to their aquatic vehicle of choice for five months out of the year to collect water samples spanning an area of 60 miles so that we know what’s going on with our local waterways.
I started our seasonal Water Quality Monitoring program in the summer of 2012 so that we could answer tough questions about water quality with scientifically sound facts. While the state does do some level of monitoring of Lake Pend Oreille and the Pend Oreille River, their efforts are project- (and budget-) driven, which doesn’t produce a consistent pattern of results over time.
Thanks to our group of hearty volunteers over the years, we’ve collected water samples from 15 locations across Lake Pend Oreille and the Pend Oreille River from June through October since 2012. Our testing produces nearly 1,000 data points per month. That’s a lot of info. Our volunteers are highly trained and follow rigorous collection and testing procedures so that we meet certain quality standards – hence their fancy citizen scientist designations. Their attention to detail makes it possible for our state and federal regulatory agencies to actually use our data.
So what are all these data points used for? Besides making pretty graphs, our data has been used to inform water quality decisions by our Idaho Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) and the EPA. The weedy mess off Kootenai Bay, otherwise known as Boyer Slough, is now receiving special attention by DEQ due to our monitoring showing HUGE amounts of nutrient pollution. We’re super happy about that and we hope the folks that (try to) enjoy the slough are too. The EPA has also used our data when creating effluent limits for wastewater treatment facilities that discharge to the lake or river.
All of this wouldn’t be possible without our volunteers. It may sound like a cushy job, but believe me, it’s not always fun in the sun. Our volunteers have braved some pretty sketchy scenarios on the water from their boats, kayaks, canoes and even paddleboards. While we try to avoid hazardous situations, you know how fickle our lovely lake can be. Trying to fill a slew of water bottles for the lab, from an often-leaking sampling contraption, without contaminating said bottles, while trying to stay upright, becomes mighty tricky when the waves roll in.
But they do it. Year after year. We even have a few volunteers that have been with us all six years, and we thank our lucky stars for their dedication and/or deep affection for rite in the rain paper and dissolved oxygen kits. I am deeply grateful to all the men and women that give up hours of their personal time to collect the data that helps us keep our local waterways swimmable, fishable and drinkable. If you would like to join our team of citizen scientists in June 2018, give me a shout!