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Researchers Perform Extensive One Day Survey Of Water Quality In RMNP

Jeff Connor, Resource Management Specialist collecting water in Boulder Brook. Photo courtesy Rocky Mountain National Park.

Jeff Connor, Resource Management Specialist collecting water in Boulder Brook. Photo courtesy Rocky Mountain National Park.

Researchers will capture a snapshot-in-time of water quality from 250 locations within and around Rocky Mountain National Park in order to glimpse how spatial differences in climate, pollution, and disturbances like mountain pine beetle are affecting Colorado’s watersheds.

On August 12, with the help of more than 70 volunteers, researchers at the National Park Service and the University of Colorado at Boulder’s Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences (CIRES) collected hundreds of stream samples from both sides of the Continental Divide.

“We want to understand how water quality varies spatially in Rocky Mountain National Park and refine our understanding of what’s causing these differences,” explained James McCutchan, a freshwater biologist with CIRES.

Even basic environmental factors like hill slope, vegetation type, and bedrock mineral composition affect stream chemistry across Rocky Mountain National Park, said McCutchan. In addition to this basic pattern of variability, McCutchan expects to see significant differences between watersheds that have been disturbed by either wildfire or mountain pine beetle and unaffected areas. McCutchan’s previous work has been able to detect differences in watershed chemistry attributable to the 1978 Ouzel Burn in the park.

This is because the removal of much of a watershed’s natural vegetation, as happens by fire, reduces the ability of plants to take up nitrogen and other soil nutrients. As a result, rain and snowmelt tend to flush nitrogen directly into the stream channel.

The researchers hope to learn whether beetle-infested watersheds in the national park have similar chemical signatures.

“Nitrogen is a very important nutrient in streams and can alter the growth of photosynthetic organisms. Ultimately, this affects the whole food chain, including top level fish, like Colorado’s threatened greenback cutthroat trout,” said McCutchan.

Nitrogen is a particular nutrient of concern as many studies have shown that nitrogen from various human sources is being deposited on the park. However, the park lacks a full understanding of the implications of this pollutant’s impacts on biological systems. This study will help describe how nitrogen deposition affects streams and complements other lake-based and land-based work.

While Tuesday’s extensive stream sampling effort was intended to provide a one-time snapshot of water quality, researchers hope to eventually develop a long-term monitoring program at several of the stream locations.

“This campaign will help us pick the best locations for longer term studies” said Park Research Administrator, Judy Visty. “It’s a great study because it combines questions about current stream chemistry as impacted by bark beetles or nitrogen with questions about how to best monitor streams into the future. So it helped us accomplish multiple objectives.”

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