By Hilary Corrigan
Triplicate staff writer
To gauge the health of the , the Yurok Tribe runs checkup stations that constantly feed vital statistics to a Website a method that scientists across the state tap for information, government officials praise and tribal operators aim to enhance.
Since 2001, the tribe adding a satellite dish here, a transmitter there has pieced together a water quality monitoring system for the political and ecological hotbed that dictates offshore fisheries.
"It's a great resource for anyone who needs information about the basin," Larry Hanson, senior biologist for the Klamath/Trinity Project at the California Department of Fish and Game in Redding, said of the tribe's online system. "They can go to one spot."
The real-time network constantly notes changes as they happen, unlike previous data collection methods that present information months later.
"It's really helped us get a more complete data set," said Kevin McKernan, director of the Yurok Tribe Environmental Program. "To say, This is what's happening now, you can see it.'"
Staff could manually take water height and temperature readings.
"But that's not every 15 minutes, 365 days a year," McKernan said. "Keeping a continuous record of stuff is pretty cool."
The constant data supply lets resource managers make decisions sooner based on relevant facts.
"If you have the best available information and it's current, it allows you to make the best possible decision," Hanson said. "You're not making your decisions in a vaccuum, and you're not making your decisions on information that's five weeks old."
The system can instantly inform the public of immediate concerns, such as changes in air quality that may harm those with respiratory problems. It has also dispelled such theories that a chemical spill caused the 2002 fish kill when more than 50,000 salmon washed ashore, for instance.
"Since we were monitoring, we were able to say, No,' (to that theory)" McKernan said, noting that low flows marked the waterway's only significant difference that year. Flows measured only 2,000 cubic feet per second, compared to a more regular measurement last week of 14,000 cubic feet per second.
The push to better monitor the river's water quality also follows last year's commercial salmon fishing disaster that shut down 700 miles of the Pacific Northwest coast based on low numbers of returning Klamath River fish. And it comes as Portland, Ore.-based PacifiCorp seeks to renew its 50-year license to operate four dams on the waterway.
The tribe runs 13 water quality stations in the lower Klamath River's main stem. They gauge various factors, such as the river's temperature, clarity, flow, rainfall, acidity levels and dissolved oxygen content, along with particulate matter in the air.
At a small station off Requa Road near the river's mouth, for instance, a solar panel charges a battery to power an air compressor that keeps pressure in a line running down the bank to the water.
Devices convert and read the pressure every 15 minutes to show the river water's height, then transmit that information every hour via antenna to a National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration satellite in space. A satellite dish near the tribal office receives the data that ends up on the tribe's website.
The real-time status lets researchers know immediately if batteries die or vandals break equipment, eliminating gaps in data collection that would otherwise show up.
McKernan aims to grow the effort. He wants to use Geographic Information System tools to show the river's changes in a color scheme bands of red would mark higher water temperatures, stretching to the cooler blues, for instance so that the general public can more easily read the data.
This summer, the tribe will add chlorophyll probes to check the amount of algae in the water and monitor the toxic blooms that form late in the season. In the past, the tribe has posted warnings after sampling the water and waiting for lab tests results, leading to two-week-old alerts.
"That's become one of the hottest issues, or one of the biggest concerns for human health," McKernan said.
Working with the Hoopa Valley and Karuk tribes, the group could add more stations and run that data online.
"It'll be pretty cool. Pretty soon, we'll have this whole network of the river," McKernan said.
Others have already noticed the work of the small staff of young scientists and researchers in the Yurok Tribe's environmental program.
Earlier this month, the Environmental Protection Agency awarded the group for outstanding environmental achievement, noting the river monitoring system as a key asset.
Scott Foott, a project leader for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's California-Nevada Fish Health Center, checks that system from time to time to see the river's water temperatures or dissolved oxygen levels.
"It's wonderful," Foott said. "Anything that gets field information into a public forum is a good thing."
Such information especially helps in years like this one, with expectations for average fish runs and low water flows, said Sara Borok, fisheries biologist with the California Department of Fish and Game's Klamath River Project. She uses the network to monitor fish health in the estuary that serves as a vital nursery.
"So if we see any juveniles go belly-up, we can say, Oh, look, this is what's going on,'" Borok said.
She called the network a piece of the puzzle to understanding the waterway's problems.
"Biologists and scientists are like, Oh, I'm so glad it's there,'" Borok said. "We're getting a bigger picture than anything we've ever had before."
To McKernan, the recent EPA award shows that a small staff with limited resources, operating mostly on grant funding, can accomplish critical work.
"One of the things I'm most proud of in our department is innovation and this is an example of innovation," McKernan said.
The system can't forecast the future, he added.
"At least it can give you now," he said.
Reach Hilary Corrigan at .