Watershed coordinator gives water quality report for area streams

Monitoring water quality in streams around the Madison Valley is mostly a volunteer effort, spearheaded by the local watershed coordinator in partnership with local groups and government agencies.

And the effort continues to grow, said Sunni Heikes-Knapton, the Madison Watershed Coordinator.

The data her crews have collected over the past five years provide public officials with baseline data and a clear picture of the water quality in the area and how best to protect and enhance it.

“The argument that gets thrown out quite a bit is we’ve got good water, we don’t need to worry about it,” Heikes-Knapton told about 20 people gathered to hear her annual water quality report. “But proving that with data helps us keep what we have.”

Heikes-Knapton spoke last Thursday night at the Madison Valley Public Library, presenting data collected on Jack Creek, Moore’s Creek, O’Dell Creek, West Fork of the Madison River and North and South Meadow Creek.

Heikes-Knapton works for the Madison Watershed Partnership, which is a collaboration of two non-profit groups – The Madison Valley Ranchlands Group and The Madison River Foundation, along with the Madison Conservation District.

The water monitoring work has increased dramatically during the past two years as Heikes-Knapton has worked to provide training through Montana State University for local volunteers, who she calls the Madison Valley Stream Team. This team of local folks conducts much of the monitoring work.

However, the water monitoring on Jack Creek is a unique effort that began in 2006. Heikes-Knapton has seven monitoring sites on the small creek that collects water from the area around Moonlight Basin and flows into the Madison River just upstream of Ennis Lake.

With good access to Jack Creek due to an abundance of landowner cooperation, it provides a great educational opportunity for local school children ages two and up, she said.

The little kids can learn about how important clean water is to bugs, fish and other aquatic animals. The older students can learn how oxygen levels, nutrients and heavy metals impact aquatic life and water quality, Heikes-Knapton said.

The Madison Stream Team last year consisted of 14 volunteers who put in about 172 hours in the field and 80 hours of training.

This coming year, Heikes-Knapton is hoping to continue to provide training for current volunteers and recruit other volunteers to help with the monitoring projects.

One specific project she’s looking at for the coming year is a fecal coliform testing project on Moore’s Creek, which runs through Ennis.

This year’s tests showed elevated levels of fecal coliform in the creek both above and below town, she said. The coliform testing project this year would look at test samples from 10 different locations on the creek.

One of the major challenges with the water monitoring work in 2011 was the high water levels that persisted through the spring and into the summer, Heikes-Knapton said.

Spring snow and rain caused flooding around Madison County last year into July. The high water was hard on stream monitoring equipment and made access to high elevation monitoring sites difficult, she said.

For more information on water monitoring work around the Madison Valley, call Heikes-Knapton at 682-3181 or email her at mwc@3rivers.net.

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