The Saratoga Sun -

Creating a baseline


A trio of researchers reported encouraging results from a 2012 to 2015 water quality study conducted upriver of Saratoga on the North Platte and its tributaries.

Robert Kimbrough, along with his colleagues Sue Hartley and Greg Smith from the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) Water Resources division, presented findings from the four-year study on June 27 as part of the Wyoming Game and Fish Department’s Habitat Speaker Series. About 20 individuals came to the Saratoga Town Hall to attend Kimbrough’s 80-minute lecture entitled “What’s Going on Upriver?”

To kick things off, Kimbrough listed the many ways in which water from the North Platte River helps support the Valley. As residents are well aware, Kimbrough said, the Platte sustains a thriving cold water fishery, provides irrigation for ranching and agriculture, drinking water for towns, habitats for wildlife and recreation opportunities for boaters. He also listed some potential threats to the waterway’s health, such as oil and gas extraction, wildfires, suburbanization, climate change and trans-basin water diversion.

Kimbrough said that project investigators gathered water or streambed sediment samples from eight different sites in Colorado roughly situated between the towns of Cowdrey and Rand. These included the Northgate region of the Platte, Grizzly Creek, Spring Gulch, Hell Creek and the Illinois River.

A wide array of measurements were taken as part of the survey, perhaps reflecting Hartley’s belief, expressed after the lecture, that “Data give you power.” Information collected included levels of major ions (like calcium and potassium), levels of trace elements (such as iron and manganese), levels of organic compounds and a spectrum of physical property data like flow rate, temperature, specific conductance, dissolved oxygen and water pH. Quality assurance samples were also taken to ensure data integrity.

In a series of pie charts, bar graphs and tables, Kimbrough devoted much of his highly technical presentation to explaining how most of these readings fell within water quality standards set by the state of Colorado.

A notable exception, Kimbrough said, were readings of a group of organic compounds called polyaromatic hydrocarbons, or PAH’s. These substances can come from burned material and are also concentrated in fossil fuels.

Kimbrough said that the researchers analyzed for 53 different PAH’s, and found a significant spike in several of these substances in Spring Gulch and Hell Creek. The elevated concentrations detected there may be related to a Lone Pine Gas Inc. oil spill in Hell Creek in December of 2011, Kimbrough said.

Eleven of the 17 samples collected at the eight different sites had detectable PAH levels, and one site on Hell Creek surpassed the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Threshold Effect Concentration (TEC) for PAH’s. The TEC is what researchers refer to as the level at which some environmental impact is likely to be observed. None of the sites surveyed reached “Probable Effect Concentrations” (PEC’s) of PAH’s–a higher level of contamination deemed likely to cause an adverse effect in the environment.

Though the study was undertaken at sites in Colorado, Kimbrough said that water doesn’t recognize state boundaries, and that anything going on upriver will have implications for downriver communities.

Kimbrough did not comment on any specific operations, but several lecture attendees pointed out that drilling and fracking operations run by Sandridge Energy are planned for upstream areas.

With state budgets under significant constraints, it will be tough to convince decision-makers of the value to be found in research efforts lacking an immediate payoff. “Basic monitoring is a hard sell–because it’s expensive,” Kimbrough summarized.

The data provided by the water-quality study could be useful in the aftermath of another oil spill or wildfire though, providing officials and regulators baseline values for comparison purposes after such an event.

At a cost of about $327,000 over its four-year lifespan, the project could be considered a bargain given the long-range utility of the information it has provided. Friends of the Arapahoe Wildlife Refuge Complex, USGS, U.S. Fish and Wildlife, the Saratoga Encampment Rawlins Conservation District and the Platte Valley Trout Unlimited Chapter all chipped in resources to help gather the readings.

Without such information, it is impossible to say exactly what effect various developments are having on one of the region’s most precious assets. Null hypotheses and expected values usually get little attention, but they can be invaluable resources if the unexpected comes about.


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