Scientists to assess RMNP water quality

Rocky Mountain National Park

Rocky Mountain National Park

Rocky Mountain National Park will turn into a giant natural laboratory Aug. 19 when researchers and scores of volunteers trek to over 200 sites throughout the park to sample water in a comprehensive project coordinated by the University of Colorado at Boulder.

The project, dubbed “WaterBlitz,” is aimed at assessing the water quality of the streams in the park and will include tests to determine if mountain pine beetle kill is affecting Rocky Mountain National Park waterways. The study should help scientists understand potential impacts of pine-beetle kill on ecosystems and humans.

“Many important water supplies in the state originate in Rocky Mountain National Park,” said Jimmy McCutchan, study leader and associate director of the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences’ Center for Limnology. “Snow that falls here is providing drinking water and irrigation water for much of the state.”

CIRES is a joint venture of CU-Boulder and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. This is the second year the study has been conducted.

While roughly 70 volunteers dispersed through the park to help with the project last year, this is the first time there will be a concerted focus on pine beetle activity and water, said McCutchan. Researchers suspect tree mortality resulting from pine beetle infestations is altering nutrient levels in the waterways, changing concentrations of influential elements like phosphorous, nitrogen and carbon.

“There are numerous potential effects of pine beetles on stream ecosystems,” said McCutchan. “We know the types of effects, but not the specific effects in Colorado.”

Increases in particular nutrient concentrations in rivers and streams can lead to higher costs for wastewater treatment, he said. Such increases also can lead to algae blooms, which can be either positive or negative when it comes to fish and other wildlife.

To collect the samples, McCutchan, CU-Boulder graduate students Thomas Detmer and Leigh Cooper and nearly 100 volunteers — primarily from the National Park Service — will hike miles throughout the park on Aug 19. Once they reach preselected sites, they will take water samples, collect plant clippings, sediment and algae, and photograph the surrounding environment.

The photos will serve as a quick way to survey habitat, helping researchers visit more sites during the one-day sampling period. By taking photos, volunteers do not need to go through the time-consuming process of measuring the physical characteristics of each site, said McCutchan.

The water collected will be tested for nutrient concentrations as well as other environmental components like pH and dissolved salts. The water samples will be combined with data taken during pine beetle-kill surveys in the West to determine what connections exist, he said.

One advantage to conducting the study in Rocky Mountain National Park is the absence of human activities like agriculture, water-treatment plants and golf courses that affect nutrient levels in waterways and change water chemistry, he said. The findings will help create water-quality profiles that will help scientists understand changes during wildfire episodes like the one in the park’s Wild Basin in 1978.

Future projects likely will address how environmental changes like beetle kill affect organisms living in the park’s waterways, including impacts on mayflies, birds like dippers and the endangered greenback cutthroat trout, McCutchan said.

Measurements of the levels of nutrient concentrations like nitrogen should reveal new information about potential ecological impacts, he said.

“If nitrogen trickles out over a long time, that’s one thing,” he said. “But if it comes out in a big burp, it could have significant effects on streams and lakes in Colorado.”

Funding for the project was provided by NOAA’s Western Water Assessment and the National Park Service.

By Jim Scott

CU Office of News Services

This story originally appeared on the news center site

Aug. 18, 2009

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