FLBSCollage

Water Quality in Montana 2005 - 2007

Studies by the Flathead Lake Biological Station of The University of Montana

The Biological Station provides independent assessments and monitoring data that describe Montana’s water quality, with emphasis on the Flathead Basin.

The Biological Station has carefully documented status of water quality in Flathead Lake and its tributaries since the Station was founded in 1899. In the early days, studies were periodic. Since 1977, measures have been obtained about monthly by the Biological Station using standardized protocols.

Growth of algae (primary productivity) is a standard measure of water quality in lakes. The following graph shows a significant increase (solid line) since 1978 in Flathead Lake. This suggests eutrophication is occurring in Flathead Lake.

 

Flathead Lake Primary Productivity through 2006

Decline in water quality mainly is caused by nutrient pollution in runoff from populated areas and deposition of wind-carried smoke and dust particles on the lake surface. But other changes increase the variability in this relationship. Food web change caused by introduction of nonnative species of invertebrates and fish, changes in water flux caused by regulation of runoff by Kerr and Hungry Horse Dams and changes in algal metabolism caused by increasing lake water temperatures associated with two decades of warm weather also are involved. A variety of studies at the Biological Station support this conclusion.

Water quality research is approached by the Biological Station with a view to take care of Flathead Lake first and move upstream to other lakes, especially Whitefish and Swan, and various rivers and streams in the Flathead and beyond as funding and threats to water quality dictate. For example, we have conducted focused studies on Whitefish and Swan Lakes at various times over the years, comparing short-term results to long-term data for Flathead Lake. We sampled streams draining burned areas to document the effects of forest fires on water quality. Similar studies were done to assess land cover changes by logging and urbanization on water quality. We have periodically sampled the Flathead tributaries that could be affected by coal and methane development in Canada, should it eventuate. We currently are concluding a very detailed study of how the large river flood plains and alluvial aquifers attenuate the flux of nutrients into Flathead Lake. And we have conducted detailed studies in the Missouri Basin of Montana, showing trends in water quality related to natural and human influences from Yellowstone to the Powder River. All of these issues and more are clarified, discussed and related to management actions in a variety of workshops periodically held at the Biological Station.

Understanding water quality requires scientifically-rigorous, routine measurements done throughout the watershed. The Biological Station has years of data and information about water quality in the Flathead and Missouri River Basins and beyond that are available to anyone or any agency that wants to work cooperatively with us. We report our information in public forums routinely, most notably in our annual State of the Lake address to the Flathead Lakers, and in the Biological Station Report Series. But, our most important print outlet is in scientific journals to underscore the credibility of our interpretations through the scientific peer-review process. Lay summaries of our learned papers are provided in the Flathead Lake Journal, and listings of reports and papers can be found on our web site.

Because Biological Station education and research programs are 90% funded from non-State sources (mainly competitive grants from the National Science Foundation), paying for monitoring, analysis and presentation of the status of water quality is an ongoing challenge (NSF does not fund monitoring). We use whatever sources of funding we can drum up and some of the work gets done simply because there is such great value in sustaining the Biological Station’s long-term data bases. The Flathead Lakers and the Flathead Basin Commission have helped the Biological Station obtain funding over the years because the economic vitality and quality of life of our communities certainly is tied in large measure to maintenance of clean, clear water.

During the last decade, funding for our Montana water quality studies has come mainly from modest legislative appropriations to the Biological Station via UM (thanks to Flathead legislators and UM administrators working together) and from EPA funds passed through the Montana Department of Environmental Quality. A reasonable program of water quality research required for understanding pollution sources and other interactive effects in the Flathead Basin will cost $300,000 for the upcoming biennium. This includes the full suite of long-term measurements at the Ross site (FL) and the midlake sites in Flathead, Swan and Whitefish Lakes, as well as multiple sites on the main tributaries to Flathead Lake and bulk precipitation (air shed monitoring). Coupled with very limited water quality data collected by the US Geological Survey and Department of State Lands, these measures will provide for a continued robust statement of the status of water quality in the Flathead Basin through June 2007. However, the Biological Station has become one of the best freshwater research centers in the world and we should be applying our expertise routinely statewide to provide a biennial report card of the condition of Montana’s water quality. The first step is to locate, evaluate and catalog (using Internet-based protocols) all existing data and use the information to develop and implement a strategic, interagency interdisciplinary water monitoring (quality and quantity) plan in the context of the changing demographics and associated land use economies of the State.

Maintaining clean, clear water is a quality of life issue for Montana. We cannot know conditions without accurate measurements taken routinely year after year. We would like to say that we have an endowment from private sources to pay for the Biological Station’s water quality program and thus not burden taxpayers at all. A fund for this purpose specifically for Flathead waters was established by the Flathead Protection Association and others a few years ago, but this research and monitoring fund currently has a principal of only $30,000. Until we can grow this fund to several million dollars from private contributions, water quality research will continue to be dependent on government sources. We respectfully ask for your help in obtaining monitoring funds for the next biennium. Your children will thank you.

 

Water Quality Research in the Flathead Basin:
Priority Sites and Measures

Water Quality Research in the Flathead Basin: Priority Sites and Measures

Operated and Reported by the Flathead Lake Biological Station

Planned for 2005-7, Pending Cooperative Funding

Lake Sites

Data Loggers

Sampling Frequency

Variables

Flathead Lake @ Midlake Deep

no

15/yr

All

Flathead Lake @ Big Arm Bay

no

Seasonal

Profiles

Flathead Lake @ Yellow Bay

yes

Seasonal

Profiles, Prec

Whitefish Lake @ E.Midlake Deep

no

Seasonal

All

Swan Lake @ S. Midlake Deep

no

Seasonal

All

River Sites

 

 

 

Flathead River, Mainstem @ Holt ( Sportsman Bridge)

Temp

15/yr

All

Flathead River @ Polson

Temp

15/yr

All

S Fork Flathead River at USGS Gaging Station 12362500*

no

15/yr

All

M Fork Flathead River at Nyack**

yes

15/yr

All

Stillwater River, 1 km below confl. with Whitefish R.

yes

15/yr

All

Whitefish River above confl. with Stillwater River

yes

15/yr

All

Swan River @ Bigfork old steel bridge

yes

15/yr

All

Creek Sites

 

 

 

Ashley Creek below Kalispell Sewage Treatment Plant

yes

15/yr

All

Stoner Creek @ Flathead Lake

yes

15/yr

All

Groundwater Sites

 

 

 

Evergreen Alluvial Aquifer – 8 of the existing suite of wells

yes

Seasonal

All

Nyack Alluvial Aquifer – 8 of the existing suite of wells**

yes

Seasonal

All


Notes:

  • Measurements at these sites maintain the continuity of the long-term record and will provide the minimum needed for a report card on influences of land uses (urbanization, farming, silviculture, parks and wilderness) on water quality.
  • Data loggers refers to sites where FLBS maintains continuous measures of discharge (or lake or water table elevation), water temperature and other meteorological variables. TEMP means only temperature.
  • All variables means that the historic suite of water chemistry and/or food web, water column profiling (temperature, pH, DO etc w/ electronic meters) and other measures are obtained on each sampling date.
  • All sites not marked by * are funded by legislative appropriation ($125k per year) plus up to $30K per year traditionally provided by DEQ for FL monitoring; * site traditionally funded by BoR; ** sites funded by National Science Foundation.

 

Flathead Monitoring Program (FMP) Database

FMP Data