Coloradan civilians monitor their state’s river health, informing water policy and environmental best-practices.

Regular days in the office are few and far between for Chad Rudow, and he’s not complaining. What he loves most is being outside, ankle-deep in a stream—a routine occurrence for him as the water quality coordinator for the Roaring Fork Conservancy, based in Basalt, Colorado.

On days when he’s out in the field, Rudow collects water samples from the Crystal River, flowing from a glacial basin south of Carbondale. With a caddy of tools, he’ll funnel water into sterilized containers andthe temperature and the river’s rate of flow, among other environmental metrics. Volunteers around the valley do the same at a handful of other sites (roughly every other month), and once Rudow compiles their samples, he sends them off to Denver, where they’re processed by the nonprofit River Watch of Colorado. 

“We’re looking for different indicators of stream health,” explains Sam Gilbertson, River Watch’s community outreach coordinator. From Denver, the samples are shipped to a lab in Fort Collins, where the water’s composition is analyzed and different trace metals and minerals are flagged.<<I’m more interested in learning about the indicators than where this is shipped. Can he use this space to tell us the former? 

Some 770,000 miles of river snake through Colorado’s landscape, hydrating humans, watering crops, and catering aquatic and non-aquatic habitats along the way. Contaminated or irregular water supplies can directly impact all facets of life in an ecosystem, thus keeping tabs on statewide water quality is a crucial, albeit humongous, task—which is where the “citizen scientists” come in.

On behalf of River Watch, Gilbertson orchestrates a fleet of as many as 130 volunteer groups—“Stream Teams,” like what Rudow is a part of—that live across the state and help the Denver team identify where and when water quality issues arise. “We have groups in Durango, Steamboat, Crested Butte … really all over the state,” Gilbertson says. “Some stations have been sampled monthly, with few interruptions, for 30 years.”

According to Rudow, “One of the really neat components of River Watch is that it’s taking ordinary citizens … and actually doing real science.” Between the volunteer training and the organization’s quality control measures, “we generate high-enough quality data acceptable at the state level.”

To date, the information culled from the volunteers’ years of collections has accumulated into Colorado’s largest and most comprehensive water database. It now informs entities like the Environmental Protection Agency, Colorado Parks and Wildlife and the State’s Department of Public Health and Environment. 

“River Watch data has been used to help set new temperature standards for streams and rivers,” Rudow explains. “[Agencies] take the data and use it to apply what they know about what trout require for stream health, and they use that to develop new standards and say, ‘Okay, this stream should never go above a certain temperature for the health of the aquatic life.’” 

Few, if any, states have large citizen-supported programs making such a tangible impact, says Rudow. “This story presents a unique cyclical partnership” between water and everyday citizens, he believes, poetically emblematic of nature’s harmony.

—E.M.