River exam

Testing the health of the Yampa

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Adam Taubman dips his net deep into the muck at the bottom of the Yampa River near Fifth Street, plunging it into layers of mud and aquatic insects. Taubman, a young biologist from the Colorado Department of Public Health and the Environment, has been talking about aquatic bugs all day, watching closely as they climb along his fingers and up his arms.

This time, as he pulls up another net full of muck, some of it begins to move. A small fish, about 4 to 5 inches long, squirms in the net. Called a sculpin, it is a bottom-feeder, its scales and spiny fins painted a greener shade of mud.

"It's so ugly," says Nadine Harrach, her face brightening. "It's just really ugly."

And though Harrach, an environmental specialist for the Routt County Department of Environmental Health, has a face prone to brightening, her smile seems oddly out of place in connection with the ugly creature. She looks more like a woman who has just hooked a 2-foot rainbow trout than a spectator in the capture of a slimy prehistoric fish.

"It's a very good sign," Harrach says.

Telling signs both good and bad are exactly what the public health department is here to find. Starting with the Yampa, Taubman and his colleagues are examining the river basins of northern Colorado to see how aquatic life is holding up as rivers absorb the impacts of growth and various user groups.

The sculpin is a "good sign" because, as a fish especially susceptible to environmental contaminants, its presence can be an indicator of a healthy river. Smaller sculpins are also an important food source for trout.

While the state has done these sorts of studies before, the comprehensive nature of this examination is unprecedented, Harrach said.

Most studies of the river in the past have included chemical tests that have examined the potential health of the living organisms in the river but not looked at the organisms themselves, she said. In addition, studies have traditionally focused on potential "point" sources of pollution, looking at discharge from places like wastewater treatment plants and factories.

The new approach will take into account "non-point" sources of pollution, which can include everything from parking lot and construction site runoff to agricultural runoff.

"There is a base of data collected year-round," Taubman said. "This is sort of the cherry on top."

The Yampa is the first river the public health department is looking at in northern Colorado, said biologist Steve Gruber, who is leading the study.

The Yampa is seen as a healthy river, but with growth and potential new pollutants, it could be in danger.

Local river keeper and avid fisherman Bill Chase also believes the river is in danger, and, while he is not interested in pointing fingers, he thinks the people who live in the Yampa Valley can stem the tide of river destruction.

"We've imprisoned the river in an urban canyon," Chase said. "We're putting more and more people on a smaller and smaller expanse of the river. All of us have to make a decision: Do we want this to be a positive resource or do we want this to be a storm drain?"

Chase, who takes great efforts to restore the habitats on the portions of rivers he takes care of, said humans can help replenish the same natural areas they are destroying. By doing things like planting cottonwoods and other vegetation by the river, people can begin to restore it, he said.

"We have stripped the river of some of its natural functions. If we want to be stewards of the river, we're going to have to look at what the river does for itself naturally and replace certain natural functions we've stripped the river of," he said.

The state is consistently being pushed by environmental groups to increase the level of scrutiny on non-point pollutants, Taubman said.

The department of public health, however, does the studies regardless of outside pressure, he added.

The studies are done in an attempt to check data in reference to the federal Clean Water Act, Taubman said.

The department measures levels of nutrients such as nitrates and phosphates in the river to see if pollutants are causing high levels of nutrients. High levels of nutrients can be produced by both point and non-point sources, Harrach said.

This month's findings are considered baseline data and will be compared to data taken in September to determine how much they have changed. The amount of algae growth, for instance, can be an indicator of the amount of various pollutants in the river. Chase, for one, thinks algae growth in the Yampa has increased in recent years.

The thrust of the study is to find out about the level of pollutants in the river, not necessarily to crack down on polluters, Harrach said. It is difficult to pin down the source of non-point pollutants because their origins and eventual influences are diffuse.

When rainwater flows over hot pavement, for instance, and then flows into the river, it will heat the river and can alter the habitats of aquatic life.

The increase in temperature, in addition, can stimulate algae growth, Chase said.

But who's to say whether the influence of hot pavement is any greater than that of runoff from agricultural sites or emissions from wastewater treatment plants? That may be a question for the future.

For now, state biologists will continue to dip their nets into the water and ugly as they may be hope for sculpins.

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