Testing the waters

Local eighth-graders boast state's top river-monitoring program


Monitoring the massive expected runoff this spring for the Yampa River drainage will not be an easy task.

Fortunately, Craig is home to Colorado's premier River Watch volunteer, Norm Yoast.

As an eighth-grade physical science instructor at Craig Middle School, Yoast has spent the past 13 years as one of the River Watch program's most active and productive stewards, offering the river ecology curriculum as part of CMS's Extended Studies program.

"It's just great science, it gets the kids out of the classroom and into the real world," Yoast said.

River Watch program coordinator Curtis Hartenstine with the Colorado Division of Wildlife said he is impressed by CMS's efforts.

'Above and beyond'

"Norm Yoast's River Watch group goes above and beyond the majority of other groups' reports in terms of both their quality and quantity," Hartenstine said.

Yoast said his CMS River Watch group monitors "more than any other school in the state," keeping track of 12 stations on Fortification Creek and the Yampa, Green, Little Snake, Williams Fork and Elkhead rivers. Yoast's volunteer service also constitutes the longest standing River Watch group in the state.

River Watch is the DOW's ongoing water quality monitoring program co-sponsored by the Colorado Watershed Network. Yoast believes firmly in the network's mission.

"The kids can see the purpose of their work because the state uses the data," Yoast said.

The students provide information for DOW and the Colorado Water Quality Control Commission to establish and improve Colorado's freshwater standards. In exchange, the state provides River Watch groups with the necessary lab equipment and chemicals for their samples -- a basic partnership that leaves Yoast ecstatic to receive any community donations for his group's research.

"Since we don't impose any regulations on the groups and only provide support, a lot of people take River Watch different ways," Hartenstine said. "Norm has made the extra effort to use it as a means of exploring and studying ecological issues and hydrology."

"The kids learn about the interaction between rivers the riparian areas and man's influence upon them," Yoast said.

A-plus program

Biannually, each member group must submit summary reports on river health with collected water samples, nutrient level measurements and aquatic species reports. Hartenstine uses the preliminary 50-page report submitted by Yoast's CMS group as an exemplary template that he hopes Colorado's other volunteer groups will try to emulate.

"I couldn't believe it. These guys not only have extensive research to back up their samples, they also graphed all the data of alkalinity, hardness, dissolved oxygen and pH levels," Hartenstine said. They even listed, pictured and identified a list of freshwater macro-invertebrates."

To substantiate River Watch's data, used by the quality control commission to effectively monitor safe chemical and nutrient levels in area rivers, Hartenstine conducts rigorous quality control tests on the regional River Watch samples submitted for analysis.

"In these controlled tests, the samples have to be in a certain range," he said. "If I were to grade Norm's group's samples on an A to F scale, they would have aced them all."

Useful and fun

With this year's perceived peak runoff, Hartenstine will rely on the CMS readings to track the increased flow that will mean drastic changes to Northwest Colorado's rivers.

"The peak flows will help any system by diluting the levels of pollutants," Hartenstine said. "They will scour out the sediment on the higher altitude creeks, but will increase sediment deposit and degrade fish habitat on the Yampa's broader drainages."

Gauging four of his group's 12 stations on a monthly basis, Yoast agrees that it will be interesting to "track this year's sediment levels compared to the low-water readings we've collected from the last four years."

Yoast's students also share his enthusiasm.

"It's fun to take readings at South Beach on the Yampa because it's bigger and funner at the wide open places. You get to learn about the water we use, and it's fun, too, especially when you get to swim," eighth-grader Kaylee Barnes said.

Although he often covers many of the program's costs out-of-pocket, the spring snowfall makes Yoast eager to start another season of hands-on teaching.

"Once this snow starts to thaw, you're not going to see us here in the classroom for a while," Yoast said.

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