Utilizing Bioassessments and Citizen Science for Stewardship in the Truckee River Watershed

The Adopt a Stream program of the Truckee River Watershed Council has grown from a one-day monitoring event to quarterly monitoring and a robust bioassessment program. Approximately 100 volunteers participate in the monitoring program annually. Volunteers monitor key tributaries and a handful of sites along the Truckee River. TRWC uses the data to identify sites for restoration and stormwater improvements and to track restoration project success.

At a webinar presented by the California Water Quality Monitoring Council earlier this year, Beth Christman, Director of Restoration Programs for the Truckee River Watershed Council, gave this presentation where she discussed their volunteer-based water quality monitoring program and the lessons learned from the process.


The Truckee River Watershed Council is a non-profit organization whose mission is to protect and restore the Truckee River.   They work to have a science-based approach towards restoration, which means collecting a lot of monitoring data and then using that data appropriately.  They have several partnerships with other organizations, so there is a broad-based stakeholder group working in their area.

The Council works in the Middle Truckee River, which is the portion of the river and all the land that drains to the California portion of the Truckee River.  The Truckee River is the only outflow from Lake Tahoe; it flows through a portion of California heading north and east and terminates in Pyramid Lake, Nevada on part of the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe Reservation.

It’s a complicated watershed,” she said.   “People driving through the area to go skiing or fishing, they look around and think it’s beautiful, looks nice and pristine, but the reality is that we have been subjected 150 plus years of pretty intensive land use in our part of the world.”

Ms. Christman presented a slide of their watershed, noting that they have established watershed priorities that are a combination of risk and value.  “Some areas are orange which means kind of high risk; that’s because they’re in pretty good shape but we really need to keep protecting them.  A lot of the red areas are areas that are in really bad shape, and those are a lot of the sites along the main stem of the Truckee River.”

The impacts to the watershed are many.  There are seven dams and several reservoirs which really affect river flows.  Six waterbodies, including the Truckee River itself, are listed as polluted from primarily sediment, although Donner Lake has many other listings as well.  There is gravel mining, grazing impacts, and an interstate railroad that parallels the river for much of its length.

But it’s the impacts of the intensive logging that occurred in the early 1900s (not so much current practices) that affects the watershed the most, she said.  “We are still clearly experiencing impacts from improperly located skid roads, railroads that were developed to get logs out, and complete clear cutting of the watershed,” she said.   “It looks nice and beautiful up here, but as everywhere in the state, we have our set of challenges before us in terms of protecting water quality and improving water quality.”

While those issues are not necessarily unique to their watershed, but there are a couple of unique things they are contending with.  One of those is the Truckee River Operating Agreement, or TROA, and it is an agreement on how the dams and reservoirs are operated to move water around the Truckee River system.  “This is a negotiation that’s been underway for 20+ years and it just went into effect approximately a year ago, so we’re in year 1 of TROA operations, even though we’ve been planning for it for 20 years,” she said.  “So in this first year, we seen some draft changes to how releases are being managed out of the dams.  We have several of our streams below dams that are very productive trout fisheries, so it’s directly impacted the health of our watershed.  There’s a lot of opportunities under the Truckee River Operating Agreement, and we’re trying to get ahead of that, versus just sort of reacting to the negative impacts.”

There is a lot of urbanization in the watershed; a very rapid period of urbanization occurred in certain areas of the watershed starting really in the mid-1990s, but the economic collapse slowed things down.  “We were able to regroup a little bit collectively in the watershed and plan out some of the urbanization a little bit better, but it is a pressure,” she said.  “This is a very desirable vacation area so there is desire to build vacation homes.  And it’s a big part of our economy, so it is something that we need to work with and manage.”

The Truckee River itself is listed as impaired for sediment, so much of the focus of the restoration work is aimed at obtaining the TMDL or achieving the pollution control goals outlined in that document.  There are also a lot of dirt roads, and the management of those really affects sedimentation in to the waterbodies; therefore sediment has been the focus of the monitoring program, and specifically the bioassessment program, as well as the restoration work. Recently, they have been concerned that there may be nutrient issues, so nutrients are also becoming more of a focus in the monitoring program, she said.

The bioassessment group predates the watershed council; it was started by a group of concerned individuals in response to a pipeline spill that occurred, severely impacting a local stream.  They formed a citizens group focused on bioassessment, and the program has been in operation since 1999.

They also have an ambient monitoring program focused on typical water quality parameters such as temperature and pH.  That program was started as part of a watershed-wide monitoring event called ‘snapshot day’.  “The idea is to get a whole bunch of people out monitoring one day a year and get data for the entire watershed, so in our case, that was Lake Tahoe, the entire reach of the Truckee River, and on down to Pyramid Lake,” Ms. Christman said.  “It’s a cool event, and it’s been going since 2000.  We started working with that group in 2001.  It’s been great to have that long-term data record for such a wide geography.”

At first, the ambient monitoring program was just the one day a year, but in 2007, the program was expanded.

Today the bioassessment program is still continuing; they only sample from five streams annually, sometimes more or less depending on what the focus is for that year.  The ambient water quality monitoring program has been expanded to about 20 sites that are regularly monitor, and a several sites that are sporadically monitored four times a year.  They collect the basic measurements of such as temperature, pH, EC, dissolved oxygen, and turbidity.  Nutrient sampling for nitrogen and phosphorous was performed once a year; they’ve now expanded to try and do that twice a year, she said.

Ms. Christman said that there is an Index of Biological Integrity (IBI) for the Eastern Sierra Nevada that works well for their data.  They aren’t currently using the California Stream Condition Index, (or CSCI) which is a new emerging tool; right now the IDI is easier to do so that’s what they’ve been using.

The pie chart shows the conditions of the streams in the watershed; the green represents monitored streams that are fully supporting of beneficial uses; the yellow are streams that have some degradation observed but are still partially supporting beneficial uses; and the red are streams that are highly degraded and do not support beneficial uses.   “A lot of those red sites that I’m showing in this pie chart are sites that we’ve targeted for some restoration actions,” Ms. Christman said.  “I’m showing you IDI data, which most people really like because it’s stable number, such as good, bad, ugly; you get one score for your entire stream.”

She said she likes diving into the metrics and looking specifically at whether it’s a sediment or a nutrient impairment issue.  “You can tease that apart from the types of insects that you’re finding in your sample, so I think bioassessment is a really powerful tool,” she said.  “It’s a really good tool for volunteer groups because it’s easy to collect the data.  You do have to pay somebody to do the lab analysis, and the lab costs are expensive, but my nutrient costs are crazy expensive too, and I feel like the data I get back from my lab output is very rich and interesting to look at to me.”

One of the issues the volunteer group has started working on is the question of nutrient enrichment, she said.  “Lake Tahoe, which is our source water, is listed as impaired for excess nitrogen and phosphorus, that’s partially because the levels of nitrogen and phosphorous need to be extremely low for it to maintain its clarity, so that’s very much a concern in Lake Tahoe,” she said.

In the middle Truckee River watershed, only a handful have standards in the basin plan.  “Nobody’s regularly monitoring nutrients in our part of the world,” she said.  “The streams that have standards, nobody is tasked with checking to see if they are meeting these standards.  We’ve been monitoring these sites over the last 15 years or so, and what we’re finding is not completely alarming, but we’re seeing that these sites are exceeding their standards quite frequently.   We’re not saying they are the basis for something like the 303d listing, but our data are screening tools to say we need to start studying this a little more; we need to try to get at why we’re seeing these excessive nutrients.”

The graph shows the few streams that have standards and then the number of times the streams have exceeded the standard; the number in parentheses indicates how many times that site has been monitored.  “The first site, BOCA00, is the Truckee River below Boca Dam, we’ve only monitored it twice, but it’s never exceeded the standard,” she said.  “To me, that’s important data.  Bear Creek has been sampled 13 times and it’s only exceeded the total nitrogen standard 2 times.  There are other standards that have been exceeded many more times than that, such as the Squaw Creek; we’ve monitored it six times and it’s exceeded standard six times, so let’s start looking at that, as that seems like a problem to me.”

Looking across the watershed at all streams and looking at the water quality standards, Ms. Christman said that a lot of streams have relatively high nutrients.

There are a lot of things that can be monitored, but looking ahead, they are going to work more on deposited sediments.  “The Truckee River is listed for excess sediment; however, the standard is a suspended sediment standard,” she said.  “We contracted out for a detailed study with David Hurst from UC Santa Barabara who does a lot of bioassessment; he came up with a pretty tight relationship between deposited sediment and biological impacts.  The work is great, it’s elegant, and we have those papers posted on our website, but really what it came out to is that we are probably measuring the wrong thing.  Our TMDL is probably not really set up to actually track the biological impacts that we are seeing in our watershed because really what we need to get a handle on is how bad is the deposited sediment.”

She presented a picture showing a PVC frame with a grid, explaining that it is used for part of a rapid assessment technique where the frame is laid down along the transect at every five meters (or whatever is the established sampling unit) and the presence or non-presence of sediment at the intersections on the grid gives a percentage of the quadrant that is covered by fine sediment.

It’s an index,” she said.  “He set this up specifically so we could repeat his methods with volunteers.  It’s very straight forward, very easy to do, and so the idea is for us to get out and get a more in depth categorization of how bad is the deposited sediment problem.  If there are a few spots that have a really high percentage cover by deposited sediment, that’s fine, the bugs have plenty of other places to live, but if it turns out that the deposited sediment is prevalent in the Truckee River then we’ve got some problems here.  So his data indicated that deposited sediment was prevalent, so we just want to bolster that dataset.”

Implementation of the Truckee River Operating Agreement has really changed how releases are managed in the watershed, and they have some data for sites below dams, so they are interested in tracking how the flow regimes either positively or negatively affecting the biological condition of the streams.

Ms. Christman then gave her lessons learned in setting up a volunteer monitoring program.

It’s important to clearly define the purpose of the volunteer monitoring program.  “There’s no right purpose of wrong purpose, but you just need to be really clear on what you’re trying to do, and that will dictate what you monitor, where you monitor, and how often you monitor,” she said.  “That will really start helping you define all these nuts and bolts and characteristics.  You might design your program around a specific pollutant, such as sediment  … be clear that’s what you’re doing.”

Since people are generally worried about land use, that’s a very common thing to design a program around, but there are challenges and it will affect where you choose to sample, she said.  Some programs are purely education, she noted; education is kind of by default a component of any citizen science program, but if it is purely educational, you’re going to set up things a little bit differently, she said.

Identify specific questions.  Define your specific questions; those questions can change or be refined over time, but make sure you are answering the question, she said.  “So if your question is what is the pollutant load in first flush stormwater runoff from the roads, then you better make sure that you are storm sampling and not just going out there in the middle of July and collecting a sample then.  That’s a very obvious example, but design your program around your questions.”

Seasonality.  Make sure you are monitoring at the right time of year.  “A lot of groups like to say we go out every month and monitor, and that’s one kind of question you’re answering, that’s one kind of data and that’s awesome, but just be clear if you’re getting your timing right.  That’s something we struggled with.”

Putting the data to use.  Collect your data using the proper protocol; the State Board and the Surface Water Ambient Monitoring Program have standard operating procedures for bioassessment collection, and there are established techniques for collecting grab samples, so if there’s a protocol, follow it.  “It does make it easier if you have to fill out a quality assurance project plan, like if you have funding from the state, then you can just reference a published procedure,” she said.

Reporting your data to the state.  Ms. Christensen said this is something that every volunteer group struggles with.  “In our case, we’re interested in our data being evaluated and incorporated into the regional board’s integrated report.  They are on a 6 year cycle for each region where they evaluate existing 303d listings and new proposed 303d listings.  So we have a good data set; it’s robust, it’s high quality, and it can be really helpful and informative.  Now the state and regional boards won’t use any data unless it’s available through CEDEN.  There are some exceptions for non SWAMP compatible data, but for our nutrient data to even be looked at for the integrated report, I have to make sure it’s in CEDEN.”

She noted that if an organization has a state grant supporting any monitoring work, they are required to put the data in CEDEN.

Getting information out to the general public.  Lastly, Ms. Christman said that they are a citizen group, so they want to talk to citizens, both those who are helping with the monitoring but also the general public.  “This is the part of our communications where I’m going to say we’ve failed,” she said.  “We just were terrible at this, so we’re trying to internally come up with some ideas for how we could better get our data out.  Right now, I go through the bother of doing an annual monitoring report, I think exactly three people look at it each year, it’s posted on our website.  So it’s kind of an exercise in I don’t know what.”

They do get requests for data when there is a development proposal, and Trout Unlimited has been interested in some of their data on streams with trout fisheries, so while they have found some ways to get their data out, they would like to have a better communications program.    “We would like to have a better communications plan because we’re spending a lot of time and energy doing this and we’re doing good work; we just need to get it out there.  Some groups are a lot better at this than we are, so if anybody has any suggestions, I’d love to talk about that.”

The California Water Quality Monitoring Council works to get data and data visualizations available; the My Water Quality portals are a result of that effort.  These portals are designed to get data out to the public; they pull data from CEDEN.  The portals have user friendly queries to understand what might be going on about water quality issues in your area or statewide.  You can visit the portals by going to www.mywaterquality.ca.gov.

Question: Do you limit nutrient sample analysis because of cost?

“Absolutely,” she said.  “Our standards up here for nutrients are usually low.  We’re dealing with micrograms per liter, not milligrams per liter, so that means that we have to send our samples to labs that can get to those detection limits.  So if your detection limits are higher, than nutrient samples can be much more affordable, but for us to run a full sample of all forms of nitrogen and phosphorus, it’s a little bit over $100 a sample, which doesn’t sound like much, but if you have 20 sites your trying to do 4 times a year, we’re just not going to be there for a while.


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