More than 30 water enthusiasts in 15 Utah counties have offered a few hours of their leisure time to monitor the health of the state’s lakes and reservoirs. Led by the Utah State University’s Water Quality Extension group, the volunteers are providing the Utah Division of Water Quality valuable information about the condition of Utah’s waters.
“Data collected by the volunteers is used in mandatory assessment reports that we submit to the Environmental Protection Agency,” says Theron Miller, environmental scientist with the Utah Division of Water Quality. “The more data we receive, the more accurate our reports can be.”
Kaisi Baron, a USU undergraduate watershed sciences major, serves as coordinator of this summer’s five-year-old volunteer monitoring program known as Utah Lake Watch. “We’ve had a great response from the public,” says Baron of this summer’s program that started in May and continues until the end of September. “Last year, we successfully monitored 20 lakes and reservoirs. This year, we’re monitoring 30 sites.”
The monitoring procedure involves lowering a device called a Secchi disk into the water and recording the depth of its vanishing point. About eight inches in diameter, the flat disk, which is suspended on a retractable tape measure, is painted in alternating black and white quadrants for high visibility. Readings provide a standardized measurement of water clarity.
“It’s a simple procedure – it takes just a few minutes to perform,” says Baron. “It’s an easy, fun volunteer activity and a good excuse to do something good for Utah.”
Secchi measurements enable water scientists to monitor the water’s turbidity or cloudiness caused by suspended or dissolved material, says Baron. The amount of turbidity, usually caused by sediment, phytoplankton, decaying leaves or plants or a combination of these, is a key indicator of the water’s ability to sustain aquatic plant and animal life.
Eleven-year-old volunteer Konnor Andersen says he’s learned “lots” from taking readings in Bear Lake, which straddles the border of Utah and Idaho.
“You can see about five meters into the water, about 15 feet,” says the Idaho sixth grader. “The wind blows a lot. Pollution changes the clearness of the water. Same for the water level, which can go up when it rains or receives runoff. It goes down through evaporation. And farmers taking their share of the water. And animals drinking out of it.”
Konnor’s dad, Doug Andersen, says the secchi disk draws lots of curious questions from friends and family members each time his son takes it out for readings.
“It’s been fun to see Konnor’s responses grow in length and detail as he gains understanding in what he’s doing,” says Andersen, a USU alum who is a broadcast journalist with KPVI-TV in Pocatello, Idaho. “Kaisi (Baron) has been a big help in this regard, really instilling excitement and confidence in Konnor from the first time we met.”
Volunteer Tracy Swenson of Logan says her participation in Utah Lake Watch was motivated by her desire to “get involved in helping the environment.”
“I saw an ad about the program in the newspaper and thought it would be a great way to help,” says Swenson, who, along with her 14-year-old son, Cassidy, has monitored the quality of First Dam water near the mouth of Logan Canyon.
“The only drawback is that we don’t have a boat,” says Swenson, who also volunteers her time to the U.S. Forest Service’s trail improvement program and to advocacy programs for wolves. She and her son use a mini-raft to reach the deepest waters and capture readings.
In addition to submitting data for the UDWQ, this summer’s volunteers participated in the Great North American Secchi Dip-In coordinated by Kent State University. Since the program’s inception in 1994, the huge volunteer effort has gathered 30,000 records from more than 6,000 water bodies to produce “scientific snapshots” of water quality trends throughout the country.
As the cadre of Utah Lake Watch volunteers grows and data is banked, so too, will the state of Utah have increasingly accurate information from which to observe trends.
“I wish we had more personnel to send out and take measurements, but we simply don’t have the resources,” says Miller. “The information that volunteers are gathering for us is extremely valuable.”
Konnor Andersen thinks it’s important for volunteers to participate in projects like Utah Lake Watch. “(Bear Lake) is a good lake, lots of fun and I would like my kids to be able to visit it, too,” he says.
Adds his dad, Doug, “Public education is an important element of taking care of the lake. Water is increasing in demand, especially clean, plentiful sources in the West. For a myriad of reasons it’s important we take care of what is in our own backyard.”