Despite Pandemic, the Swim Guide Citizen Science Project Prepares for Another Summer of Growth and Monitoring at Flathead Lake
The Swim Guide Citizen Science Project is a community organized and funded water quality monitoring program that for the last three years has provided people with water quality information and peace of mind to enjoy popular public swim areas around Flathead Lake, knowing that the water is safe for swimming.
“The Swim Guide Project gives people the most up-to-date information on the health and cleanliness of the water at their favorite beaches around Flathead,” said Mark Johnston, a Polson resident and lead organizer of the Swim Guide Project. “It also provides a function for people to report any incidents of pollution around the lake.”
Originally created by Flathead Lake Open Water (FLOW) Swimmers in Polson to provide water quality information to local residents and visitors via the Swim Guide website and smartphone app (www.theswimguide.org), the Swim Guide Project helps users easily find which beaches are open for public swimming, and whether or not those beaches meet safe water quality standards.
“The Flathead Lake Region received over 14,000 hits last year on the Swim Guide website and smartphone app,” said Johnston. “And that momentum will build with the addition of the new State Park locations. We’ve received so much positive feedback from the community over the past three years, it would’ve been a shame to put the project on hold for even a single season.”
In previous years, the Swim Guide Project has relied on volunteers to collect the samples and the support of small local businesses to cover the costs of analyses. These businesses included Alpine Design, UBS, Riverside Recreation, Flathead Lake RV, Glacier Perks, Rocky Mountain Outfitter, Sail Inn Marina, and CSKT Tribal Gaming. Non-profit organizations like the Flathead Lakers and Greater Polson Community Foundation have also provided financial support for the Project.
But in the midst of the economic difficulties brought on by the coronavirus pandemic, Project organizers didn’t feel comfortable turning to local businesses for funding, and the likelihood that the Swim Guide Project would return in 2020 was in doubt. However the Swim Guide Project will return in 2020 due to contributions by the Flathead Lake Biological Station (FLBS).
“Given the amount and importance of outdoor recreation during the covid-era, not to mention the dramatic increase in visitation to Montana’s State Parks, it just does not make any sense to discontinue a water quality program that safeguards human health at our popular beaches and swimming areas,” said FLBS Associate Director Tom Bansak. “Given the number of people who will be recreating on Flathead Lake this summer, the Bio Station determined that we need to cover the costs of sample analyses.”
FLOW Swimmer’s primary collaborators on the Swim Guide are the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes and the Bio Station. Additional funding and effort has been provided by numerous Adopt-a-Beach partners.
Due to the success of the program, the Montana State Parks requested the addition of all of the state parks around the lake, so in 2020, the Swim Guide will boast sixteen monitoring sites, which include: Riverside, Boettcher and Salish Point Parks in Polson; Wolf Point, Elmo and Blue Bay Tribal Parks; Volunteer Park in Lakeside; Somers Park; the City Dock in Bigfork; Flathead Lake State Park – Wayfarers, Woods Bay, Finley Point, Big Arm, West Shore and Yellow Bay Units; and the Bio Station’s shoreline.
From July 1st through September 1st, samples are collected weekly from each location and sent to FLBS’s Freshwater Research Lab. There, FLBS lab analysts process the samples for E. Coli, and fecal coliform, bacteria that can be transferred to clean swimming areas from the waste of humans or wildlife. The possibility of higher E. Coli and coliform levels increases on hot, stagnant days or after periods of heavy rainfall.
Over 110 samples were analyzed during the summer of 2019 from the various locations. By the end of the summer, every public swim area sampled proved to be 100 percent safe for swimming.
“We are very fortunate to have these results here in the Flathead,” said Bansak. “In many other places, this is not the case.”
To learn more about the Swim Guide Project, or to find out how you can participate, visit the FLOW Swimmers website at https://flbs.umt.edu/newflbs/flathead-lake/flathead-swim-guide/. The Swim Guide app can be found at www.TheSwimGuide.org.
The Bio Station’s Freshwater Research Laboratory is an ecosystem science facility providing grant, contract and fee-based analytical services. It offers analyses on water, soil, air, biological and radiochemical samples. For more information about their services, visit https://flbs.umt.edu/newflbs/services/freshwater-analyses/.