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Water Wisdom: Establishing a baseline

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The Lone Peak High School freshman class monitors the Gallatin River from the boat ramp at Moose Creek. PHOTO BY NATE MCCLAIN

Students explore river health at future restoration site

By Stephanie Lynn EBS CONTRIBUTOR

BIG SKY — The Lone Peak High School freshman biology class, in coordination with the Gallatin River Task Force, collected watershed data at sites slated for river restoration and access improvements during the 2018/2019 school year.

After recognizing that increased river use was threatening the Gallatin River, the Task Force realized an ambitious plan to collaborate with the Custer Gallatin National Forest to repair and enhance river access sites that began with work at Moose Creek Flat. Water quality information collected before, during and after this series of projects will be used to evaluate whether or not restoration activities improve river health and fisheries. However, sampling all proposed sites exceeds the scope and manpower of regular monitoring conducted by the Task Force and volunteers.

Enter Kate Eisele, middle and high school biology teacher, with a desire to focus her freshman biology class on environmental science, a passion for river conservation, and a goal to engage her students with real world issues. A logical partnership between the Task Force and LPHS emerged.

“I love to guide students of all backgrounds and abilities in risk-taking through experiments,” Eisele said. “I believe learning science should be fun, safe and hands-on.”

After receiving water quality monitoring training in August 2018, the 26 ninth-grade students trekked to the Gallatin River and two of its tributaries, Porcupine and Beaver creeks, monthly to measure key indicators of watershed health, including dissolved oxygen, nitrate, air temperature, water temperature, E. coli, flow rate, pH, conductivity and turbidity.

The class progressed during the year from researching their assigned parameters to interpreting their results and culminated their studies with a field trip to two completed river restoration sites and one future restoration site.

“Beyond classroom learning objectives, they have developed a much larger awareness of the watershed they live in and the challenges it faces from a growing human population,” Eisele said.

When they left the controlled environment of the school laboratory, the freshman discovered that, at times, field investigations can be messy.

“They learned things don’t always work out as planned; equipment fails, gets dropped, tossed, lost or broken,” Eisele said. “Student teams have had to persevere to overcome deep snow, cold temperatures and absent teammates to accomplish data collection.”

Their measurements led to a greater understanding of river conditions where a gap exists in monitoring efforts. Students measured water temperature, dissolved oxygen, and pH levels that support trout and aquatic insects, but discovered abundant E. coli bacteria in Beaver and Porcupine creeks. In addition, nitrate levels recorded in Beaver Creek were twice as high as the other sites.

“Overall, our rivers and streams are clean, but Beaver Creek was less clean, due to the [trail] crossing,” said freshman Ace Beattie.

After completing their yearlong study, the students connected their data with overall river health and expressed enthusiasm for protecting the special place they call home. The rising freshman class will build upon their efforts this fall.

Stephanie Lynn is the education and communications coordinator for the Gallatin River Task Force.

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