Collaborative Monitoring of Water Quality and Aquatic Ecosystems to inform Landscape-level Restoration and Management

Water is an extraordinarily precious resource across the United States, particularly in the semi-arid West. Efforts to manage this resource effectively have often focused on our public lands, which are the source of more than 75% of the water for millions of people. The challenges associated with managing water sustainably continue to mount with increasing demands, the advent of new stressors like climate change, and other stressors like water quality and habitat degradation associated with expanding watershed development.

The Southwestern Crown of the Continent Cooperative Forest Landscape Restoration project stretches across 1.5 million acres of Forest Service land in three National Forests of Montana, with 10 years of forest and aquatic restoration projects planned across this large landscape. Map by The Wilderness Society

In August of 2012, a new and exciting opportunity presented itself when the U.S. Congress established and funded ten, decade-long Collaborative Forest Restoration (CFLR) projects across the country. The goal is to support ecological restoration on public lands under a new model of community and collaborative forestry. The Southwest Crown Collaborative (SWCC) in Montana, a diverse coalition comprised of U.S. Forest Service agency staff, university faculty, conservation organizations, and citizen groups, was one of ten funded projects. A primary objective of CFLR is to “maintain or improve water quality and watershed function” and fisheries habitat, a directive that presents significant challenges for managers that relate to another main objective of CFLR, which is to remove unnecessary roads from the Forest Service landscape.

More specifically, the challenges associated with, first, identifying those roads that most negatively impact negative streams, and second, monitoring the effectiveness of restoration treatments on aquatic ecosystems, include:

  • Monitoring related to water quality and watershed integrity at the landscape scale can be complicated by natural inter-annual climatic, hydrologic, and disturbance-driven variability, as well as a range of ecological, geologic, and geomorphologic conditions,
  • Difficulties associated with measurement error,
  • A poor understanding of the ways in which roads influence steam processes across a diversity of ecosystem types and geologies,
  • Considerations of impacts associated with climate change, and
  • The high costs of data collection coupled with limited funding for this component of CFLR projects.
Road systems on public lands across the United States contain problem segments such as this one, which can alter runoff, erosion, and routing of sediment, nutrients, and other materials to nearby streams. Finding these problem areas and repairing them is both time-consuming and expensive, but potentially vital to the health of our headwaters and fisheries. Photo courtesy of Bruce Rieman

The Great Northern LCC is supporting the development and testing of a watershed-scale set of monitoring protocols to address both management challenges. The intent is to enable more effective restoration and management of watersheds across the Crown of the Continent and those portions of the larger Great Northern LCC landscape sharing similar climate and geological conditions. The approach builds on state-of-the-art inventory and monitoring protocols and also incorporates key information about climate change effects to watersheds and fisheries to help better inform prioritization of limited management resources.

Designing and Testing Monitoring Protocols for Entire Watersheds

Over the course of the past year, a group of scientists and managers working with the SWCC CFLR project aquatic monitoring effort gathered to consider options for monitoring protocols that would link road restoration and aquatic ecosystems, especially water quality and in-stream habitats for native fishes. The first of these two workshops focused on evaluating and discussing the potential application of two U.S. Forest Service tools to address these goals:

Both tools have a strong scientific basis, excellent and widely-vetted quality control, and wide application in the region. During the first workshop, however, managers expressed well-founded concerns that it would be very difficult to detect the effects of watershed and road restoration in downstream channels within the time frame of the SWCC project (2010-2020). For these reasons, the group decided to focus monitoring efforts directly on the effects of site-level (i.e. road segment) restoration on road-generated erosion, a primary process of concern, using a tool like GRAIP.

Tools that help managers identify roads or road segments that most influence watershed function and nearby streams are needed to help inform the process of prioritizing roads for mitigation or removal on restoration projects within the Blackfoot Watershed. Map courtesy of Ecosystem Research Management Institute

After much discussion and debate at both workshops, managers and partners agreed that both GRAIP and PIBO were the right tools to address management needs, provided that they were integrated in a nested fashion within sites and effectively adopted to the SWCC. The final plan included:

  • Creating “Hybrid PIBO” methodology that dramatically increases the temporal and spatial replication to address the fact that PIBO was designed to work at a very different scale, and with different questions, than those represented in the SWCC,
  • Using Hybrid PIBO to develop a statistical model of the relationship between roads and in-channel stream conditions to quantify the general influence of roads in the SWCC landscape (and as an alternative to the traditional temporal monitoring approach),
  • Utilizing GRAIP as a measure of watershed disruption upstream from PIBO sites (calibrated by erosion plots that were installed in 2012) rather than the more traditional measures of road density,
  • Incorporating a general design based on four focal watersheds (likely 6th HUC) distributed across the 1.5 million acres of the SWCC, with 15-20 sites in each watershed for a total of 60-80 sites, and
  • The choice of the four demonstration watersheds for this project includes Cottonwood-Shanley and Morrell Creek in the Seeley Lake Ranger District, Poorman in the Lincoln Ranger District, and Jim Creek in the Swan Ranger District, with implementation occurring in 2012 and 2013.
Work by managers to restore or mitigate watershed function and water quality in mountain streams is an important part of sustaining native trout fisheries. Methods for assessing the effectiveness of different treatments through time are important to focus limited management resources as well. Photo courtesy of Aubrey Benson

New Partnerships Continue to Emerge

In addition to providing useful tools and information for managing aquatic systems and fish habitats, this monitoring program has established conservation partnerships within and between the U.S. Forest Service Rocky Mountain Research Station and National Aquatic Monitoring Program, and U.S. Geological Survey Northern Rocky Mountain Science Center, other federal and state agencies, the University of Montana, and NGOs within the region.

Another exciting development is the participation of Seeley Lake High School in ongoing efforts to monitor stream nutrients in the Morrell Creek watershed as part of this nested monitoring program. This “Students in Action” project was conceived by local teachers and initiated with support from the Clearwater Resource Council, a partner in the work described here.

Finally, collaboration with the U.S. Geological Survey, lead of another GNLCC-funded project in 2011, is allowing us to incorporate critically-important, large scale stream temperature models and connectivity analyses for bull trout and westslope cutthroat trout into our analyses of watershed integrity as part of several climate change components to this work.

Morrell Creek is one site where the new watershed-scale model of aquatic monitoring will be implemented. Photo courtesy of Ladd Knotek

This article was contributed by Anne Carlson, The Wilderness Society and Bruce Rieman, US Forest service - Rocky Mountain Research Station (retired) and Clearwater Resource Council.

Visit Southwestern Crown Collaborative for more information about the project. Products from the GNLCC-supported work will be available on the Landscape Conservation Management and Analysis Portal.