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How citizen scientists are testing our streams and rivers for contamination

Mountain Studies Institute, Fort Lewis College partner to measure E. coli in San Juan National Forest’s waterways
Izzy Bartholomew, left, practices the process for water testing on June 29 at Santa Rita Park, learning from Livi Curmano, the lead student from Fort Lewis College for the E. coli monitoring project led by Mountain Studies Institute and FLC. The group of volunteers will take water samples from alpine creeks and waterways of San Juan National Forest throughout the summer. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

Half a dozen volunteers stood in the Animas River near the Santa Rita Water Reclamation Facility dipping clear plastic bags into the water before flipping them several times and tying them closed.

At picnic tables in the shade of a nearby pavilion, they practiced vacuuming the water through paper-like filters nestled between two plastic jars, setting the filters on small microbial plates that would soon hold colonies of E. coli.

Led by Mountain Studies Institute and a team from Fort Lewis College, the June 29 training was preparing volunteers for the water-quality research they would undertake in the alpine creeks and waterways of San Juan County in the coming months.

Jewell Coleman, environmental educator with Mountain Studies Institute, takes a water sample from the Animas River on June 29 at Santa Rita Park during training for citizen science volunteers for Mountain Studies Institute’s and Fort Lewis College’s E. coli research project. Volunteers will take samples from 16 sites in San Juan County during four sampling periods in the coming months. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

After a successful first year, Mountain Studies Institute and FLC aim to build on their E. coli monitoring partnership, again tapping into citizen science and student research to quantify the impacts that recreation has on watersheds and water sources in San Juan National Forest.

Their hope is that additional data and new research initiatives can bolster the information gleaned from last year’s study and further inform forest management as more people flock to public lands.

“It’s just this idea of are we collectively respecting the land that we share when we go out and recreate, especially with the higher levels of recreation that we’re seeing during and after COVID?” said Christie Chatterley, an associate professor of physics and engineering at FLC and one of the leads on the project. “We’ll see if this year we actually can detect a bigger increase (in E. coli).”

Volunteers learn the water-testing process at Santa Rita Park for Mountain Studies Institute’s alpine water-quality research project. Results from the first year of the citizens science initiative found elevated levels of E. coli around recreation sites. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

Chatterley and her students have been testing water in San Juan National Forest for E. coli since 2018. They began with Chicago Basin and other high-use recreation areas before working with the U.S. Forest Service to monitor waterways frequented by grazing animals.

E. coli is an indicator of fecal contamination from mammals. Testing supplies are easy to come by and bacteria easy to cultivate making it a particularly useful measure for water quality.

In 2021, San Juan County and Mountain Studies Institute received a grant from Great Outdoors Colorado to create the San Juan Stewardship Project to better understand the impacts of recreation while expanding education and other mitigation strategies in the county.

As a part of that grant, Mountain Studies Institute developed a citizen science E. coli monitoring project while working with San Juan National Forest and FLC.

A map of the testing sites in Mountain Studies Institute’s E. coli monitoring project in San Juan County. Mountain Studies Institute is partnering with San Juan National Forest and Christie Chatterley, an associate professor of physics and engineering at Fort Lewis College, and her students to quantify the impacts of recreation on water quality in San Juan National Forest. (Courtesy of Mountain Studies Institute)

“Last year, Mountain Studies Institute got involved and that has really taken things to another level,” Chatterley said. “They kind of took what we had been doing the last few years and expanded it to this citizen science program and really added a lot of sites (which) started allowing us to look at a higher number of samples.”

FLC previously had two high-use recreation monitoring sites. With the help of citizen science volunteers, Mountain Studies Institute collected data from 16 sites across San Juan National Forest in San Juan County last year.

The results were promising.

A volunteer places a filter on an E. coli plate on June 29 at Santa Rita Park for Mountain Studies Institute’s and Fort Lewis College’s E. coli monitoring project. The plates will grow E. coli colonies that citizen scientists will then count to quantify the concentrations of the bacteria in alpine waterways. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

The group detected elevated levels of E. coli near recreation areas in contrast to waterways with less exposure, though the results were still well below the Environmental Protection Agency’s safe recreational water standard of 126-colony-forming units per 100 milliliters, the standard measurement for E. coli.

Volunteers recorded about 75 cfu in the South Fork of Mineral Creek below Kendall Campground and about 55 cfu in the outlet of Potato Lake near Molas Pass, the two highest concentrations.

“We weren’t seeing anything that was dangerous, but we were seeing a correlation,” said Jewell Coleman, an environmental educator with Mountain Studies Institute. “Without bathrooms, especially overnight areas, you’re seeing much higher counts of E. coli.”

A chart shows the 2021 comparison between E. coli samples collected and counted by citizen scientists with Mountain Studies Institute and samples tested by San Juan Basin Public Health during one of the project’s sampling periods. The comparison shows the remarkable consistency between samples tested by citizen scientists and those tested in a lab. (Courtesy of Mountain Studies Institute)

As important were results that showed remarkable consistency between samples tested by citizen scientists and those tested in a lab.

Mountain Studies Institute’s volunteers collect their samples in the field, using special belts or even keeping samples in their pockets to incubate the E. coli plates with their body temperature. At 24 and 48 hours, they count the bacteria colonies on the plates by hand, submitting that data to Mountain Studies Institute.

While rudimentary, the method was developed by the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund and the World Health Organization for use by community surveyors around the world, Chatterley said.

Some of the samples volunteers collected in 2021 were also tested in San Juan Basin Public Health’s lab. They produced nearly identical results to the counts volunteers were collecting in the field.

“We know citizen science is a great way to get science into the community, get people active (and) make science more approachable,” Chatterley said. “But then, in addition, it turns out it’s actually also capable of providing very reliable data.”

With funding from the Forest Service this year, citizen scientists with Mountain Studies Institute will again collect E. coli samples from the project’s 16 monitoring sites.

During four four-day sampling events in July, August and September, they will employ the techniques they learned during training to capture and count bacteria colonies.

Chatterley and four students from FLC will also collect E. coli samples in the Weminuche Wilderness and bodies of water deeper in the backcountry.

With the success of the 2021 monitoring program, Mountain Studies Institute and FLC are also expanding the project.

This year the two have asked volunteers to sample sites immediately after rainstorms.

If recreational users bury their waste properly – 6 inches or more deep and at least 100 feet from water – it is unlikely that the waste, and subsequently E. coli, will end up in waterways, Chatterley said.

“We think that a lot of human waste and therefore E. coli will be mobilized by rainstorms so that the water quality will change,” said Jeremy May, education coordinator at Mountain Studies Institute. “We don’t want to just know how the water is when it’s nice out. We want to know how bad does it get during rainstorms, too.”

To this point, researchers and citizen scientists have tested for the presence and concentrations of E. coli in the waters of San Juan National Forest, unable to distinguish between livestock, wildfire and humans.

But this year Livi Curmano and her fellow students will look to quantify the contributions of people using a technique known as PCR, which allows them to detect genetic material.

“We’re testing for something called B. dorei (Bacteroides dorei) which is a human specific indicator of fecal contamination,” Curmano said. “It’s really just a bacteria from the human gut, so that would help us differentiating between wildlife and humans.”

In addition to the new initiatives, the 2022 research season will also serve as an important benchmark.

In 2020, the Ice Fire burned nearly 600 acres near Silverton and the popular Ice Lakes Trail. It led to the closure of the Ice Lake and Clear Lake basins last summer.

Testers with Mountain Studies Institute took the opportunity to collect baseline water quality measurements without the presence of people.

“We’re going to be able to take the samples from last year and compare them to this year when there’s tons of people up there,” Coleman said.

That will allow researchers to draw more direct correlations between E. coli concentrations and heavy recreation in the area.

The potential effects of E. coli and poor water quality motivated Izzy Bartholomew to volunteer for the monitoring project.

Bartholomew, a recent graduate of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, is studying in the farmer training program at the Old Fort Lewis campus in Hesperus.

“We use water from streams in our crops,” Bartholomew said. “Something we talk about is the colony-forming units (of E. coli) because there’s levels that the water has to be at for it to be safe for agriculture.”

Livi Curmano, center, lead student for Fort Lewis College’s E. coli monitoring research, trains Izzy Bartholomew, left, and Derrik Echevarria for Mountain Studies Institute’s and FLC’s water-quality research project. This year volunteers will collect samples that will help Curmano and researchers at FLC to determine if humans are contributing to elevated E. coli levels near recreation areas. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

Derrik Echevarria, a new environmental science student at FLC, said the opportunity to contribute to the project drew him to participate.

“Water is cool. We all need it,” Echevarria said. “... The quality of water is important because all of these waters coming out from the mountains all go to reservoirs and drinking water and for recreation.”

Citizen scientists like Bartholomew and Echevarria have helped Mountain Studies Institute to expand the scope of its E. coli monitoring project, and they strengthen the nonprofit’s educational efforts, Coleman said.

“The more together we are, the more we can do to have clean water, clean forests (and) less impact, and that’s really what we’re striving for,” she said.

To volunteer

Mountain Studies Institute has 17 volunteers so far for this year’s E. coli monitoring program, but is looking for more. Those interested can contact Jewell Coleman, environmental educator with MSI, at via email at jewell@mountainstudies.org.

After the last sampling period in early September, Coleman and Mountain Studies Institute will compile the data from the 2022 research season as well as last year’s data into a report that the group will then share with San Juan National Forest and its other partners.

Mountain Studies Institute hopes to also submit the data to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment for the agency’s use, May said.

The goal is to provide public agencies with the data they need to make science-based decisions as growing recreation affects the natural resources of San Juan National Forest and Southwest Colorado.

“We are seeing record numbers in parks and national forests. People just want to get outside,” Coleman said. “Heightened visitation is fantastic, but there’s an impact from it. It’s very important for us to show (data) to say, ‘This is why you dig a hole. This is why you use Leave No Trace.’”


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