Watershed Council, APU partner on Kuskokwim River study


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This map shows the stops that Kuskokwim River Watershed Council Science Team Leader Martin Leonard will make this month as he paddles from McGrath to the Bering Sea coast as part of a project to collect baseline data for the river.

Graphic/Sabrina Larsen/Alaska Pacific University

While many Alaskans are winding down their summer adventures by the end of August, Martin Leonard was just getting his started.

By early September, Leonard planned to leave on a several week canoe trip to chart much of the Kuskokwim River.

The Kuskokwim starts at the foothills of Denali in the Alaska Range. Leonard’s trip will begin at the main stem in McGrath, and end at the Bering Sea.

“We’re coming down the river and we’re doing a couple things,” Leonard said.

He and a partner will collect baseline information on the Kuskokwim River and surrounding area as part of a Kuskokwim River Watershed Council project.

The watershed council represents about 39 tribes and works to support their village-based environmental technicians from the headwaters to Kuskokwim Bay. Much of its work is related to water, solid waste and contaminated sites. Leonard’s voyage is part of the water science effort, he said.

Leonard is an APU grad himself — but he earned his master’s in business administration in telecommunications management, not in the fisheries lab, where 10 graduate students are pursuing master’s degrees in environmental science.

Now, Leonard works for the watershed council in the EPA Brownfields Tribal Response Program and is acting science team leader.

The voyage will begin to build a baseline of water science data on the river, which is in the range of major future development projects, like mining and hydro energy. It’s also a major salmon waterway, where runs have declined and scientists would like to know why.

“There’s very little cohesive baseline water science data,” Leonard said.

Alaska Pacific University will help make Leonard’s data understandable for other entities.

Leonard said that tribes in particular don’t have direct access to baseline information about the region, and will benefit from the watershed council’s project.

The council is also “trying to build that capacity at the village level to engage in western science,” Leonard said.

In mid-August, Leonard was busy preparing a yellow Kevlar Wenonah for the journey at Alaska Pacific University’s Fisheries, Aquatic Science & Technology, or FAST, lab.

The lab is run by APU professor and researcher Brad Harris out of a former dormitory. Leonard used space on the ground floor to gear up for his voyage this summer after funding delays due to sequestration kept him from his planned early-summer start date.

The partnership between the watershed council and APU extends beyond lab space. Harris’ lab has also provided scientific support for the project. KRWC Director John Oscar and APU President Don Bantz signed a memorandum of understanding formalizing the partnership last year.

Grad student Sabrina Larsen is developing her thesis around the Kuskokwim work and has spent much of the summer in the lab, building a visual representation of the watershed. She is using GIS software to build a map that includes layers with information about water quality, fish habitat and socioeconomics in the area.

On one layer, dots pinpoint anadromous streams, with information about what species are present. Other layers offer information about languages, land ownership, subsistence uses and ecological characteristics.

After Leonard’s trip is over, the map will be updated with his data. Points on the map represent each of his stops, and tables will display his data.

Essentially, the map details what is known about the watershed. That will help residents, researchers and others better understand what work is needed in the future.

Leonard is an experienced paddler, having kayaked the northern coast of North America, as well as across the Bering Strait. The Kuskokwim River itself is familiar territory — Leonard has paddled the river previously, and fat biked it in the winter.

The technology for this trip is different than his past excursions.

Using a blue device dragging off the boat, an EXO 2 Multiparameter Sonde, Leonard will do a longitudinal study of the river. Every five minutes, six sensors in two-foot long cylindrical instrument will take samples near the surface of the river. That should provide a sense of how the river changes throughout its course, such as near towns and tributaries.

The longitudinal study will include data about the river’s pH levels, conductivity, temperature, dissolved oxygen, dissolved organic matter and turbidity.

What’s exciting, Leonard said, is that coupled with new telemetry equipment the device has the ability to upload the data in real time. So while he’s floating away from McGrath, colleagues can see the data he’s charting in the river. If a sensor is dead, someone can inform him. If the numbers are strange, he can check the sensors.

“This telemetry thing is something new,” Leonard said. “I’m anxious to see if it works, and how well it works.”

The system has the ability to broadcast data via both satellite and mobile phone, switching depending on available service.

“I’m interested to see if that will work on our networks,” Leonard said.

A second, orange, device called the YSI castaway, will hang off the side of the canoe and be deployed once per hour to the bottom of the river.

The castaway will collect a vertical profile of information on physical properties and provide data about conductivity, temperature, pressure, density and location.

Leonard will also stop and visit communities along the way.

“I get to go into the village and visit all of these people,” he said.

McGrath to Stony will be the longest remote stretch, he said.

His visits will be a mix of social and scientific. In each community, he hopes to share information about the research the council is doing, how the data will be available in the future, and prepare people to operate the fixed stations that are planned for the future. In the fall, the U.S. Geological Survey, or USGS, will offer training on how to operate the instruments from the longitudinal study that will be used at those fixed sites.

The watershed council would like to build fixed water stations at certain points, and the trip will provide baseline data on those spots, as well as the rest of the river. Leonard will also stop to work with tribes’ environmental staff.

The project also had support from a host of other organizations, including USGS and EPA, an Elders Council, tribes along the river, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service’s Landscape Conservation Cooperatives program, and APU.

Leonard is also working with the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium, or ANTHC, on injury prevention work, and through the local ecological observer, or LEO, network.

LEO is a forum for anecdotal observations to be catalogued throughout the state, and Leonard said either he’ll post some observations, or relay information back to grad students such as Larsen so that she can do so.

The USGS helped develop the research protocol, but the whole trip is a first-run at what they hope will be a multi-year effort.

Harris said others have also reached out about the project — Google is interested in a water-based streetview map of the region, and National Geographic has asked about the expedition.

“This is a shakedown cruise,” Harris said.

Leonard said they hope the longitudinal study will be done annually.

Over the next five years, Harris and his grad students will know what questions to ask about the Kuskokwim, Leonard said.

APU’s role in the project is similar to many of the collaborations Harris has undertaken.

He works with agency and industry partners throughout the state to figure out what research they want done, but don’t always have the manpower to do. Then he has his students work on the projects. That means his undergraduate and graduate students have spent time sampling halibut in Homer, doing razor clam surveys in Ninilchik and watching films from Bering Sea trawls to see how well salmon excluders are working.

Harris wants to see the university undertake applied research projects that address Alaska’s natural resource issues especially fisheries management. And, he said, he wants his students to learn that much of science is collaboration. The way you interact with people is just as, or more, important than what you know.

“Science is a very social activity,” Harris said.

Molly Dischner can be reached at molly.dischner@alaskajournal.com.

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