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

This is why I'm excited to join Science On The Fly, a global project that unites anglers and scientists to investigate rivers in key regions of the world launched by the Woodwell Climate Research Center (formerly Woods Hole Research Center) and Fishpond, a fly fishing industry leader in conservation. I want to do something, and I give a damn.

This initiative dramatically expands scientific monitoring of river systems by engaging the fly fishing community including anglers, fly shops, outfitters, and professional guides. SOTF began in 2019 with a few sites near Telluride, Colorado and has grown to sampling over 200 sites across the US and internationally. SOTF harnesses enthusiasm, knowledge, geographic reach, and conservation ethic of the fly fishing community to strategically increase the number of rivers that are subject to long-term studies of water quality and watershed health.

I'll be joining this growing effort by initially monitoring 3 sampling locations on the upper Madison regularly and consistently for water quality parameters. These sites will be sampled each month, allowing us to evaluate seasonal trends, over the long term.

Using state of the art instrumentation at the Woodwell Climate Research Center by world renown scientists, all samples will be analyzed for the concentrations of biologically important parameters such as nitrate, ammonium, phosphate, silica, and dissolved organic carbon etc. as well as water temperature. All data will be publicly available alongside other rivers throughout the globe. No turf wars or agendas here. Noboby owns the data. It belongs to us all.

As Woodwell's Deputy Director Max Holmes says, “The chemistry of a river tells a story, but that story is only ever known if the samples are collected that allow the story to be heard. We need to study rivers and watersheds over a large area and integrate that knowledge into our broader understanding of climate change."

We all strive for cold, clean water, and lots of it. We all want healthy watersheds, abundant fish, and a bright future. Data and monitoring are critically important for that bright future. By joining the SOTF team I hope to bring more data to the table, locally, regarding baseline and trend data on water quality in the upper Madison while also contributing to a larger understanding of how our rivers are changing across the globe. None of us can do everything, but we can all do something, and I'm excited to begin doing something, even as simple as collecting samples.


I'm also working with the folks who helped establish RiverNet on the Yellowstone. Similar to SOTF, RiverNet aims to monitor water quality, but also water quantity at more granular level by monitoring the all important tributaries and also adding to the density of stream gauge sensors with publicly available data. The program was founded in response to the 2016 fish kill on the Upper Yellowstone, caused by an outbreak of Proliferative Kidney Disease-causing parasites, and the need for better information on the environmental conditions that catalyzed the fish kill. It is a collaboration between the Yellowstone Ecological Research Center (YERC) and local partners (e.g., fishing guides and outfitters, Upper Yellowstone Watershed Partnership, Sweet Grass County Conservation District).

The RiverNet Community Water Monitoring Program began monitoring water quantity in the Upper Yellowstone River Watershed in 2018. The primary goal is to establish seasonal baselines for nutrients in tributaries and reaches of the Upper Yellowstone River, and to start building a long-term dataset for analyzing environmental changes and trends. In addition, RiverNet includes monitoring water temperature and depth (and thus discharge through depth-to-discharge rating curves) by using continuous, in-stream sensors, adding these parameters to the long-term dataset.

Temperature and discharge sensor

Compared to the USGS gauges, these in stream sensors are bluetooth capable, minimally intrusive, at a fraction of the cost ($1,000 to $20,000 annually!). Anyone passing by a sensor can connect to it, directing data (temperature and stage - converting to flow discharge) instantly (or when that phone is back in cell range) to the cloud for everyone to see. In some cases, if structures are nearby with WiFi, data is uploaded in real time. These sensors are also far more affordable than current gauges. For about $1,000, a sensor that monitors 2 parameters (temperature and stage) can be deployed. I want to be the first to sponsor one. More expensive models use cellular real time connection to the cloud and with a suite of water quality parameters. What these sensors allow us to do is be aware of parameters in real time or near real time.

What we're hoping to do is start a discussion locally about how to begin this process, invite anyone who wants to be a partner, set up sponsors for in stream sensors for tributaries already identified by DEQ as impaired, work with landowners who may want to collaborate, and start working as a community to gather data. This community model is working well on the Yellowstone, with over a dozen sensors throughout the basin in important tributaries, most of which sponsored by landowners and community members. What YERC has discovered is that if you have enough sensors on enough tributaries you can develop forecasts (flow, temp, turbidity, etc.) for main stem rivers like the Madison with modeling, just like your weather forecast. Pretty impressive stuff. If you're interested in helping get this going let me know. Recently, YERC held a webinar to discuss RiverNet with the folks at the Snake River Fund down in Jackson to discuss the potential of the program on their waterways as well. You can view that webinar by following this link:

AND, entering this passcode: 4c#*UHcV

I think it would be great to get a few temp/flow sensors in some tribs for this season. Right now it's just me chatting with the folks at YERC who developed the program for the upper Yellowstone. If you're interested in learning more or helping, reach out to me. While not necessarily "citizen science" RiverNet is more "community science" as the data is all backed by DEQ standards but orchestrated and run locally by everyone. Landowner partnerships are critical. This quote by Margaret Mead is very pertinent:

"Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has."