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Passing the Torch—Water-Quality Monitoring by the USGS and the Yukon River Inter-Tribal Watershed Council

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Jay Hootch collects a water sample from the Andreafsky River
Above: YRITWC volunteer water technician Jay Hootch collects a water sample from the Andreafsky River, a tributary of the Yukon River, for dissolved-gas analysis. [larger version]

As Jay leans over the side of Bub's boat, he notices that the boat is facing downriver. "Hey, Bub, spin the boat; we got to be facing upriver." One last rinse to go—filling the syringe all the way up, he discharges the water over his shoulder toward Bub. "Got to make sure not to contaminate the sample," Jay says with a grin. After one more look at the detailed protocol from the field manual, he collects water in the syringe, carefully adds a filter and needle, and transfers the water to serum bottles that will be sent to a laboratory for analysis. Jay and Bub are two of 20 volunteer water technicians collecting data for the Yukon River Inter-Tribal Watershed Council (YRITWC) water-quality program, managed by the council's science department. YRITWC is an indigenous grassroots organization dedicated to the protection and preservation of the Yukon River watershed.

The Yukon River flows 2,300 mi from its headwaters in Canada to its mouth at the Bering Sea, draining a huge area (twice the size of California) that hosts one of the most diverse ecosystems in North America. The river is also fundamental to the ecosystems of the eastern Bering Sea and the Chukchi Sea, providing most of the freshwater runoff, sediment, and nutrients entering those water bodies. In the Yukon River watershed—a varied landscape of glaciers, mountains, wetlands, and tundra—live more than 20,000 indigenous people who use its resources for all aspects of their lives, including drinking water, food, transportation, bathing, and ceremonial and traditional practices.

map of Yukon River Basin
Above: The Yukon River is one of the largest rivers in the world that is relatively undisturbed, with no dams, no dikes, and no levees. In this relatively pristine watershed, the effects of climate change and human activity can be observed with particular clarity.

Indigenous people and Western scientists alike have observed troubling changes in the Yukon River watershed, including changes in freshwater fish and anadromous salmon (which live most of their lives in saltwater and return to freshwater to spawn), increasing incidence of tumors and cysts in fish and wildlife used as subsistence food, elevated levels of atmospherically transported contaminants in fish near the headwaters of the Yukon River, and warming of the Yukon River basin's climate during the past several decades. This warming has resulted in a longer growing season, partial melting of permafrost, drying of upland soils, shrinking of wetlands and lakes, and increased fire frequency. Continued warming has the potential of making vast amounts of organic carbon and nutrients currently stored in permafrost available for decomposition and for release to nearby wetlands, lakes, and streams. This release will have global effects on the atmospheric concentrations of such greenhouse gases as carbon dioxide and methane; it may also have regional effects on all levels of stream productivity in the Yukon River watershed, including salmon populations.

To better understand the response of the Yukon River basin to climate change, the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) began a water-quality study in October 2000. During the 5-year-long study, USGS scientists monitored water discharge and made repeated water- and sediment-chemistry measurements at numerous sites along the Yukon River and all of its major tributaries. Rivers are great integrators of what's happening in their watersheds; water chemistry measured at any point in a river reflects a complex combination of the natural processes and human activities that occur upstream. The water-quality database produced by the USGS study provides valuable baseline information about conditions in the watershed and will facilitate proper management of watershed resources as conditions change in response to a changing climatic regime.

While the USGS was winding down its water-quality study, the YRITWC was ramping up plans to conduct its own long-term monitoring and assessment program. It soon became apparent that both organizations could benefit from collaboration. Thus began the process that USGS hydrologist Paul Schuster calls "passing the torch."

Collecting data and samples from beneath the ice
Above: Collecting data and samples from beneath the ice during onsite training in Kotlik, Alaska, March 2004. [larger version]

In fall 2004, the Alaska regional director of YRITWC, Rob Rosenfeld, contacted Schuster, a principal investigator in the 5-year-long USGS study, and asked whether the USGS would be interested in providing guidance and assistance in the development of YRITWC's water-quality-monitoring program. Over the next several years, through conference calls, training sessions, and hands-on workshops, a strong relationship was built, and continues to grow, between the USGS and the YRITWC.

Working closely with YRITWC scientific research staff, the USGS has coordinated and conducted twice-a-year training sessions in water-quality sampling, held both in classrooms and in the field. The YRITWC has successfully adopted USGS protocols, methods, and techniques in water-quality sampling and has transferred these skills to many members of Tribes (U.S.) and First Nations (Canada) throughout the Yukon River basin. "We've taken what we learned during our 5-year study on the Yukon River and streamlined it into a real layman's approach to water quality," said Schuster. As a result, growing numbers of qualified water technicians are volunteering for the YRITWC water-quality program.

Starting in March 2006, the first field measurements and water samples were collected by the indigenous people of the Yukon River basin under the supervision of the YRITWC and the USGS and sent to laboratories in Boulder, Colorado, for analysis by scientists with the USGS Water Resources Discipline's National Research Program. By the end of the 2006 sampling season, nearly 50 volunteers had collected more than 800 samples at 20 sites throughout the basin, 6 of which are sites where the USGS collected water-quality data during its 5-year-long study. The program continued to grow in 2007, with more than 50 volunteers collecting from 25 sites and almost doubling the number of samples.

Paul Schuster gives a water-quality-monitoring demonstration Water technicians practice carbon dioxide sampling
Above left: Paul Schuster (right) gives a water-quality-monitoring demonstration at a YRITWC Summit (biannual meeting) in Moosehide, Yukon Territory, Canada, August 2005. [larger version]

Above right: Water technicians practice CO2 sampling on the Tanana River, March 2007. [larger version]

In March 2007, Environment Canada sponsored a 3-day water-quality-sampling training in Whitehorse, Yukon Territory, Canada, to expand the YRITWC water-quality-monitoring program into Canada, which contains a third of the entire Yukon River basin, including the headwaters. Instructors included Schuster (hydrologist USGS), Bryan Maracle (lead scientist, YRITWC), Rob Phillips, Bev McNaughton, and Andrea Ryan (hydrologists, Environment Canada), and Bob Truelson (water-quality specialist, Yukon Territorial Government). Participants included personnel from YRITWC, the Water Survey of Canada, and nearly a dozen water technicians from several First Nations interested in joining the program. This first workshop spurred multiyear funding through the Yukon Territorial Government; a second workshop was held in Whitehorse in April 2008. With this expansion into Canada, the YRITWC water-quality program is becoming unified on a watershed scale, without regard to political boundaries.

Schuster is happy to say that "the torch has been passed." Through the collaborative efforts of the YRITWC and the USGS, the 5-year baseline database completed by the USGS in September 2005 is on its way to being extended to 8 years and beyond, and many sampling sites have been added to the network. The YRITWC supervises field measurements of pH, water temperature, specific conductance (a measure of salinity), and dissolved oxygen, along with the collection of a suite of water samples following USGS protocol. USGS National Research Program laboratories in Boulder, Colorado, and Reston, Virginia, provide in-kind analytical support, measuring dissolved organic carbon, greenhouse gases, major ions, nutrients, trace metals, and oxygen/hydrogen isotopes. The YRITWC also intermittently selects and sends samples to private laboratories for contaminant analyses.

Bryan Maracle demonstrates a calibration technique Participants in March 2008 workshop
Above left: Bryan Maracle, science coordinator for YRITWC, demonstrates a calibration technique to water technicians at a March 2008 workshop in Fairbanks, Alaska. [larger version]

Above right: Participants in March 2008 workshop, after collecting the first sample of the year on the Tanana River at Nenana, Alaska. [larger version]

The ever-growing water-quality database is shared among the YRITWC, the USGS, and other interested parties. As the Yukon River basin responds to climate change over the coming decades, this detailed, long-term baseline of water-quality information from the Yukon River will be invaluable, enabling future generations of scientists and resource managers to understand the changes that are occurring, predict future changes, and make decisions about our global and regional resources.

The YRITWC took advantage of an unusual opportunity to supplement its monitoring program in summer 2007, by making continuous water-quality measurements along 1,200 mi of the Yukon River during the Yukon River Healing Journey—a canoe trip from Moosehide, Yukon Territory, Canada, to Russian Mission, Alaska. Similar data collection—using state-of-the-art water-quality probes towed behind canoes—will take place this summer in the Puget Sound/Strait of Georgia basin straddling the United States-Canadian border between Washington State and British Columbia. There, Tribes and First Nations comprising the Coast Salish peoples will conduct water-quality measurements in the Salish Sea—the large inland water body encompassing Puget Sound in the United States and the Strait of Georgia in Canada—during their annual Tribal Journey in July 2008 (see "USGS Will Collaborate with Coast Salish Indigenous Peoples to Measure Water Quality in the Salish Sea (Puget Sound and Strait of Georgia)," Sound Waves, May 2008). Traditional modes of transport, such as canoes, are optimal for this type of research; a propelled vessel, even at its slowest speed, travels fast enough to cause air pockets to form around the water-quality probes, interfering with the probes' performance and resulting in inaccurate data. Towing water-quality probes behind canoes is an excellent example of meshing traditional ways with modern science to move toward a shared goal—understanding our environment.

The collaboration between indigenous peoples and the USGS is about connecting people in a common cause. Such collaboration empowers the indigenous peoples, as stewards of the land and the water, to begin a process of collecting information through modern science and using traditional ecological knowledge as a guide to new areas of research. The result is a truly unique product that will assist in the management of the watershed's rapidly changing resources. This work strengthens the preservation of the culture and traditional ways of life for people of the Yukon River basin.

Related Sound Waves Stories
USGS Will Collaborate with Coast Salish Indigenous Peoples to Measure Water Quality in the Salish Sea (Puget Sound and Strait of Georgia)
May 2008

Related Web Sites
Yukon River Basin Studies
USGS (U.S. Geological Survey)
National Research Program
USGS (U.S. Geological Survey)
Yukon River Inter-Tribal Watershed Council
indigenous grassroots organization
Water Quality Monitoring Program
Yukon River Inter-Tribal Watershed Council
Environment Canada
Water Survey of Canada

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Water-Quality Monitoring

New Method to Estimate Sea-Ice Thickness

Meetings Airborne Lidar Processing System Workshop

Staff Bill Normark Passes Away

Bill Normark: Tributes

Bill Normark: Ascent of Sea Cliff

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St. Petersburg Office Dedicates New Building

USGS Deputy Director Addresses Downtown Partnership

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