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Upper Madison Monitoring Efforts


Grabbing one of the first samples at McAtee

For a river as famous as the Madison, we fall far short I think in collaborating together our efforts to monitor water quality and quantity parameters. There is no clearinghouse for regularly gathered data on water parameters on the upper Madison. And for some parameters like the most important one of all, water temperature, it's embarrassing what we have publicly available. For example, in nearly 60 miles of water, we have 3 USGS gauges. One at the base of the dam at mile 0 of what most people refer to as the upper Madison. Of the remaining two, only one provides temp and flow year round (Kirby Gauge) and that one is a relatively short distance from the first one. Forty miles later, the Varney gauge stopped producing temperature measurements in 2018 and currently only has discharge. No gauge or parameter monitoring is or ever has been installed in what we refer to as the "flats" where streamside shade vegetation is largely absent for miles and water depth is very shallow. And in Ennis, Northwestern Energy has a gauge measuring water temp that sometimes works, most times not. None provide real time data on any water quality metrics. And of the nearly 2 dozen major tributaries to the upper Madison, I can think of one (West Fork Madison) that has its own dedicated flow and temperature gauge run by Northwestern Energy near the mouth. It can be found HERE. All those important tributaries, and virtually no discharge data to speak of and a scattered approach to monitoring water quality.


To be clear, lots of researchers and agencies from time to time gather data on water quality parameters, but the data often isn't publicly available or is so far down an internet rabbit hole that nobody knows it's there. Or it's scattered in various organizational databases, and isn't long term or consistent over time. And, they're often spatially restricted to a site here or a site there.


So you begin to get the picture. How can we expect to adapt to changes in the environment if we're not even looking for them to begin with? So many miles of mainstem river with noboby looking, and almost all the tributaries with the same. On the world famous Madison! And some might say, the upper Madison seems pretty clean, why monitor? Well, first of all how do we know? Second, even if a stream like the Madison shows no current levels beyond TMDL standards set by the DEQ, it's important to establish baseline data so that in the future we can use that data as context for trends observed. Monitoring is what keeps science and scientists honest. And when you consider what happened with the fish kill on the upper Yellowstone in 2016, and what's currently going on with the algal bloom on the Gallatin, you start to wonder, are we next?

Science on the fly sampling bottle