ST. GEORGE — The Utah Water Watch program is looking for volunteers to help monitor for harmful algal blooms in priority reservoirs and streams across the state.
Utah Water Watch is a water quality monitoring program of citizen scientists, said Hope Braithwaite, associate professor for watershed quality at Utah State University in Logan. Braithwaite currently organizes and coordinates efforts related to the program.
The hunt for harmful algal blooms will be conducted by a subgroup with the water watchers called the HAB Squad.
Run through the USU Extension office, Utah Water Watch allows volunteers to test the water quality of streams, rivers and other waterbodies across the state on a monthly basis. The data the volunteers collect is submitted to a database that is then sent to the Utah Division of Water Quality for examination.
“I’ve really enjoyed it,” Washington City resident Julie Lindquist said.
Lindquist has been a Water Watch volunteer for nine years and has monitored the same spot on the Santa Clara River since signing onto the program. She said she likes to visit the same spot each month and see the seasonal changes that take place there. She has also started to feel responsible for the area, she added, and has taken family members out there as well.
“I feel a sense of ownership from it,” she said. “It’s a way you can take care of the land.”
Both Braithwaite and Lindquist said the training to become a water monitor isn’t that complicated.
Anyone who is interested needs to register on the Utah Water Watch “Get Involved” webpage and complete some training that either occurs in person or is recording for those who join the program later. Once the training is complete, the Utah Water Watch program sends the new volunteers the needed tools to get to work.
Water monitors perform a series of simple tests for oxygen content, pH, turbidity and other factors. They also make field observations about water surface, clarity, color, odor, algae cover and the presence or absence of dead fish.
Volunteers also record data on current and past weather and recent rainfall totals.
The program currently has around 121 registered participants statewide, Braithwaite said, though she noted some of the single participants represent larger groups, such as a grade school class registered under one teacher.
In the realm of checking water quality, Lindquist called the water watchers “an early warning system.” If they find something odd with the body of water they are monitoring, they can contact the program’s organizers, who then get state water officials involved.
Braithwaite said this was the case with a harmful algal bloom that occurred in the Jordan River in northern Utah. The Utah of Division of Water Resources was alerted to signs of a possible algal bloom in the river by a water watch volunteer, and officials issued a health warning.
Concerns over the growth of new algal blooms in the state’s lakes and reservoirs have led to the creation of the HAB squad, which has around 10 registered volunteers so far, Braithwaite said.
Unlike the regular program that asks volunteers to check the water once a month, the algal bloom hunters will be asked to check every one to two weeks.
The harmful algal bloom monitoring part of the Utah Water Watch website hosts a map of priority waterbodies that have and have not yet been picked up by volunteers. Spots in southwest Utah that still need algal bloom checks are the Quail Creek, Gunlock, Upper Enterprise and Newcastle reservoirs.
Though algal blooms can be naturally occurring, they can create toxins that are harmful to humans if ingested. Local waterbodies that have been subject to algal blooms have been Panguitch Lake in 2018 and, more recently, the North Fork of the Virgin River in Zion National Park.
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