WSCC Celebrates 18 Years of River Watch

By wscc 2 years agoNo Comments

To know the North Fork Valley is to know the waters that help make it a vibrant and agriculturally diverse place to live.  

For 18 years, the Western Slope Conservation Center (WSCC) and local citizen-scientist volunteers have been doing just this – monitoring the lifeblood of the North Fork Gunnison River valley, the river itself and its tributaries. The long record of the watershed’s health, which includes data collected during all seasons of the year, is an invaluable resource for local water users, and for scientists and decision makers.

The local volunteer group is a part of Colorado’s River Watch program, which has been in existence since 1989. River Watch is primarily funded by Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW) through a mix of federal and Colorado Lottery funds. River Watch’s mission is to work with volunteer stewards to monitor water quality and other indicators of watershed health and to use the data to educate citizens and inform decision makers about the condition of Colorado’s waters. Another goal of River Watch is to provide a hands-on, real science experience for volunteers who are learning about the value and function of Colorado’s surface water ecosystems. The North Fork River Watch group is one of the longest running groups in the state. “Our River Watch program is a testament to our community’s desire to be good stewards and give back,” says Jake Hartter, WSCC Watershed Coordinator. “Our water unites us all, and supports our incredible farms and ranches in the North Fork Valley.”

Water quality data have been and continue to be collected at numerous stream locations from Muddy Creek above Paonia Reservoir to the confluence of the North Fork, the main stem of the Gunnison River, and in the Gunnison River at Austin.

The WSCC River Watch group samples and analyzes eight stream locations quarterly for temperature, pH, dissolved oxygen, alkalinity, hardness, conductivity and turbidity. Total and dissolved metal samples are collected by the volunteers and analyzed at CPW laboratories.

The volunteers also collect nutrient samples which are analyzed at CPW laboratories. This includes total nitrogen, ammonia, nitrate/nitrite, total phosphorus, chloride, sulfate and total suspended solids.

The variety and numbers of macroinvertebrates is also an excellent indicator of river health. Fall macroinvertebrate samples are collected along with a physical habitat assessment at a site on the North Fork of the Gunnison River, a few miles west of Paonia.  The macroinvertebrates (visible organisms such as snails, flatworms, and dragonflies) are sent to a certified taxonomist to identify species and genus. During recent years, the volunteers have netted more than 500 macroinvertebrates from a large variety of taxa, including mayflies, caddisflies, midges, annelid worms, to name a few.

“The river is the lifeblood of this valley – a cliché that happens to be true,” says Jim a volunteer with the group.  “Following on that thought, every so often you need to take its pulse. I wasn’t really aware of what went into that process until I participated in my first River Watch monitoring along with the veteran crew that has been doing this for years. Experiencing the river close up and hearing how it has changed, taking measurements and gathering samples, searching for the patterns and indicators of the health of the watershed is knowledge you can only acquire and build on over time, and it starts with hands-on participation.  If you really want to understand the North Fork Valley, you need to take the opportunity to get to know its river.” [WA3]

All River Watch data is public information that is available on the River Watch website, Colorado Data Sharing Network, National Water Quality Portal. It is delivered to the Water Quality Control Division WQCD for their annual hearing data calls. Throughout Colorado, River Watch groups collect data at more than 1,200 sites on 700 streams. River Watch volunteers collect far more stream water quality data than any other entity in Colorado, and their data provides a vast amount of long-term valuable information on the health of Colorado’s streams.

Using the data collected by the local North Fork River Watch volunteers from 2001 to 2014, the Western Slope Conservation Center prepared a water quality report for the North Fork Gunnison River watershed. It is available at:  [WA4] The WSCC will prepare another water quality report using more recent water quality data collected by the volunteers.

River Watch volunteers meet in Hotchkiss on the second Wednesday in March, June, and September. They spend several hours collecting samples in the field, analyzing them, and preparing the metal and nutrient bottles for shipment to the River Watch laboratories. In October, the volunteers collect macroinvertebrates from the river and ship them to the River Watch taxonomist for identification.

Do you want to make a big difference to the North fork of the Gunnison River Watershed and the local community, plus have fun playing in the water? The North Fork River Watch group needs more volunteers. No experience is necessary. If you are interested in volunteering, please contact Jake Hartter at 970-527-5307 or by email at

  Air & Water Quality, Events, Programs, Projects, Watershed
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