Troubled Waters: A Six-Month Longitudinal Study of the Spanish Fork River System
4:15 a.m. - May 24
My alarm clock goes off. I quickly slip out of bed and pull on my clothes, then disappear into the darkened hallway to do a final check on my field equipment. As soon as I finish loading my equipment into the trunk of the car, I am ready to head off to my first test site, 45 miles away.
For the past three years I have been comparing the water quality of the rivers flowing into and out of Utah Lake. Utah Lake is a freshwater lake located in north central Utah. It is 24 miles long, eight miles wide, and at its lowest point, 14 feet deep. It is also home to the June Sucker, an endangered species of fish.
The June Sucker is not a bottom-feeder like most suckers. Its mouth is positioned so that it can eat zooplankton mid-lake. Unfortunately, its numbers are rapidly declining due to pollution and the destruction of its spawning areas. Another thing threatening the June Sucker is competition from non-native species such as carp. This is a serious problem because Utah Lake is the only place on earth this species can be found.
One of the major reasons I have been studying the rivers flowing into and out of Utah Lake is to figure out which one has the worst water quality. I was surprised when I discovered that the Spanish Fork River was the most polluted because only 12 miles upstream, where the Spanish Fork River flows through Spanish Fork Canyon, the river appears to be healthy. This mystery got me thinking, "What is causing the drastic drop in water quality along the Spanish Fork River?"
After reading up on the river and interviewing some local scientists, I still had many unanswered questions. I decided to set out on an expedition to see if I could figure out what was going on. I hypothesized that human activity was playing a major role.
I picked seven sites to test along the Spanish Fork River system (Appendix I). The first three sites were the tributaries that create the Spanish Fork River: Thistle Creek, Soldier Creek, and Diamond Fork River. By testing these sites, I could figure out which pollutants were flowing into the Spanish Fork River at its head. The next spot, Site 4, was located in the Spanish Fork Canyon after the tributaries meet. Sites 5 and 6 involved urbanization; one was located above the City of Spanish Fork (pop. 20,000) and one was below. Site 7 tested the effects of agriculture. It was also the site where I had done earlier research and had found such poor water quality.
Dissolved Oxygen Testing
5 a.m. - Thistle Creek
The car pulls onto a gravel turnoff at the side of the road, and the race begins. I must test all seven sites for dissolved oxygen before the sun comes up because as soon as the sun hits the water, algae start to photosynthesize and will throw off my results.
I feel the chill of the air as I jump out of the car with my test kit. Quickly, I run down the sloping bank to the stream and dip in a small plastic container. Grabbing one of the glass pencil-shaped tubes of chemicals from my portable water-quality laboratory, I place the tube in the small plastic container filled with river water and break the tip of the tube. The vacuum inside the glass tube sucks up the river water and mixes with the color-changing chemicals. I match it against a color-coded guide. It turns a dark blue, which means the dissolved oxygen is 6 ppm (parts per million). This indicates the water is well oxygenated and can support life. I jump back in the car and rush to Site 2, hoping to complete the dissolved oxygen testing at the remaining six sites before the sun comes up.
The sun starts peeking its head over the mountaintops of the Wasatch Range as I finish up with Site 7. Whew! I have gotten all of the dissolved oxygen testing done just in time.
Other Chemical Testing
With dissolved oxygen out of the way, I concentrate on testing for nitrate, phosphorus, and pH. Luckily, these tests can be done when the sun is up.
Testing for nitrate is a lot like testing for dissolved oxygen, only the tubes turn a shade of pink instead of blue. Nitrate is important to test for because it is one of the most common non-point source pollutants. Nitrate can get into water in many different ways, from animal waste, overuse of fertilizer, and the dumping of household products (such as soap and detergents) down storm drains.
My test for phosphorus uses a reagent packet that is added to a sample of river water and is then compared against a second sample to determine the change in color. Phosphorus provides food for plants and is consumed very quickly. If you find too much phosphorus in a stream, however, it is probably inorganic phosphorus, which is often a man-made pollutant.
PH testing is done by dipping a pH strip into river water, then comparing it with a color guide. Both high and low levels of pH can be deadly—high being basic and low acidic. Things like decaying leaves and other plant material can cause acidic pH. On the other hand, limestone or chemicals such as bleach and most soaps cause pH to rise and become more basic.
I pull out my field journal and record the results:
- Site 7, Spanish Fork River (downstream agriculture)
- Nitrate - 0.1 ppm
- Phosphorus - 0.1 ppm
- pH - 7.5
With the chemical testing done, I start collecting physical data. The first thing I do is take the temperature of the water. Temperature is an important physical factor because scientists use it to categorize a river, and it helps define what types of fish can live there. The Spanish Fork River is classified as a cold water fishery. Water temperature is also important because it affects the amount of oxygen that can be dissolved in the water and the toxicity of chemicals.
The next thing I do is measure turbidity. This involves a long clear tube with a checkered disk at the bottom. I dip the tube into the river, fill it with water, and then watch the water as it drains out. When I see the black-and-white-checkered disk, I close the faucet on the side of the tube and measure how many centimeters of water are left. High turbidity often indicates an erosion problem upstream. If there is too much sediment in a river, plants and animals start dying off.
Stream width and depth are measured so you can find the cross-section of the river. The cross-section allows you to figure out if the river is channelized or has other structural problems. It also gives you the numbers needed for the formula for flow rate.
To measure width and depth I have to get into the river, so I pull on an old pair of rubber waders and head into the cold, murky water. This time of year the water is from snowmelt and is very, very cold. As I make my way into the river, a leak in my waders starts above my right knee, then another leak starts spurting water above my left mid-thigh. I am definitely getting a roll of duct tape when I get home!
To determine velocity, I put a large pinecone in the water and time it as it floats downstream for 50 feet. How fast the river flows has an impact on what kinds of habitats can exist; usually, the faster the flow, the less variety of life is found.
- Temperature - 68.2° F
- Turbidity - 19 centimeters
- River Width - 25 feet
- Average River Depth - 13 inches
- Velocity - 0.9ft/sec
Before leaving Site 7, I quickly snap a few pictures with my digital camera and jot down some notes about the riparian zone.
The riverbed at this site has been channelized, and the bottom is filled with silt and sand-sized substrate. The west bank is mainly covered with cottonwood, scrub oak, and poplar trees, many of which have great branches stretching over the river. The east bank is covered with tall grasses and occasional Dalmatian Toadflax. Watering cattle, trying to get to the river, have trampled large gaps through the trees and grasses.
With the data for Site 7 collected, I am ready to retrace my steps back upstream and repeat the same procedures at the other six sites.
8 a.m. - Site 6, Spanish Fork River (downstream urbanization)
- Nitrate - 0.1 ppm
- Turbidity - 36 cm
- Phosphorus - 0.12 ppm
- River Width - 37 feet
- pH - 7
- Average River Depth - 18 inches
- Temperature - 62.4° F
- Velocity - 2 ft/sec
The riverbed at Site 6 is composed of silt and sand-sized substrate. It is channelized and lacks all essential stream environments except for runs. The gently sloping banks are covered with otter grass, reeds, and cattails. There is an occasional willow that leans out over the water. Higher on the bank are a variety of tall forbs and grasses.
9:15 a.m. - Site 5, Spanish Fork River (upstream urbanization)
- Nitrate - 0.1 ppm
- Turbidity - 38 cm
- Phosphorus - 0.05 ppm
- River Width - 22 feet 9 inches
- pH - 7
- Average Stream Depth - 17 inches
- Temperature - 63.3° F
- Velocity - 2 ft/sec
The riverbed has cobble-sized substrate and all three needed environments: runs, riffles, and pools. The steep, rocky north bank is populated by cottonwood trees and a few tall grasses. The gentler sloping south bank has an assortment of tall reeds and grasses leading down to the river. A large log creates an eddy as it stretches out from the bank into the river.
10:30 a.m. - Site 4, Spanish Fork River (in canyon)
- Nitrate - 0 ppm
- Turbidity - 42 cm
- Phosphorus - 0.05 ppm
- River Width - 59 feet 9 inches
- pH - 6.5
- Average Stream Depth - 31 inches
- Temperature - 62.l° F
- Velocity - 4 ft/sec
The riverbed of this site consists of gravel and cobble-sized substrate. It has two of the three needed environments—runs and riffles—but lacks the pools needed for many fish and macroinvertebrates to rest and breed. The steep banks of the river are heavily covered with a variety of foliage, mainly tall grasses and forbs. The south bank has many cottonwood trees. The north bank of the river is dominated by a railroad embankment.
11:45 a.m. - Site 3, Diamond Fork River
- Nitrate - 0 ppm
- Turbidity - 52 cm
- Phosphorus - 0.2 ppm
- River Width - 58 feet 2 inches
- pH - 7
- Average River Depth - 10 inches
- Temperature - 60.2° F
- Velocity - 4 ft/sec
Diamond Fork's riverbed is made up of cobble and boulder-sized substrate. It has all three needed environments: runs, riffles and pools. The immediate riparian zone is dominated by boulder-sized rocks that have been placed there for bank stabilization. Some small grasses grow in the cracks among the rocks. There are also clumps of scrub oak and other trees spaced sparsely along the riverbank.
12:55 p.m. - Site 2, Soldier Creek
- Nitrate - 0 ppm
- Turbidity - 19 cm
- Phosphorus - 0.10 ppm
- River Width - 14 feet 10 inches
- pH - 9
- Average River Depth - 9 inches
- Temperature - 53.4° F
- Velocity - 3 ft/sec
Soldier Creek's streambed has a silt and sand-sized substrate. The streambed is channelized and has been dredged out to create a run. The stream bank consists mainly of limestone rocks with occasional small grasses and other ground-clinging plants. There are a few poplar and willow trees scattered along the stream bank, but they are small.
2 p.m. - Site 1, Thistle Creek
- Nitrate - 0 ppm
- Turbidity - 60 centimeters
- Phosphorus - 0.02 ppm
- River Width - 14 feet
- pH - 7
- Average River Depth - 15 inches
- Temperature - 52.9° F
- Velocity - 3 ft/sec
Thistle Creek's streambed is composed of gravel and cobble-sized substrate. It has all three environments: runs, riffles and pools. There is a defined stream bank at the site, lined with forbs to prevent erosion. Native trees and bushes supply partial shade to the creek.
Ten hours and fourteen stops later, I am back where I started. I close up my test kits, load them into the car, and head home for a late lunch. After that, I plan to spend another hour entering the data into the computer. But for now I get into the car, peel off my soaked socks, and slip into a pair of dry ones.
For the next five months—June, July, August, September, and October—I continue gathering data once a month. This gives me a better idea of how things change over the spring, summer, and fall and at different levels of water diversion for irrigation (See Appendix III).
Discussion and Possible Solutions
Nitrate is often a non-point-source pollutant, which means it comes from lots of hard-to-identify sources, such as fertilizer off pastures, golf courses, and lawns. During my study I found high nitrate levels at Sites 6 and 7. One way high nitrate levels can be fixed is by lowering the amount of water flowing directly off agricultural lands and golf courses. Another way is to improve the riparian zone and establish buffer zones along the river so the nitrate has a chance to be absorbed by plants before it enters the water.
Phosphorus is also often a non-point-source problem. Every site except for the Diamond Fork River, Site 3, had high phosphorus levels at some time during my six-month study. Phosphorus enters the water as artificial fertilizers, household detergents, and through mineral-rich springs. To prevent phosphorus from entering the water, the public needs to be educated. Educational tips can include washing the car on the lawn rather than the driveway, picking up after pets, fertilizing less, and maintaining septic systems. Another possible solution is having the phosphorus-rich water diverted to settling ponds so it can be cleaned before it enters the river.
I found low dissolved oxygen (below 7 ppm) at some point during the study at all sites except Site 4. The low dissolved oxygen was most likely caused by high levels of phosphorus and nitrate. Phosphorus and nitrate are linked to algae blooms, which deplete the amount of dissolved oxygen in the water through cellular respiration. This problem can be solved when you reduce the amount of phosphorus and nitrate entering the water.
Acidic pH was found at Sites 3 through 7, while basic pH was found at Site 2. PH is a hard problem to fix because you are dealing with two ends of the spectrum. With acidic pH, you can remove conifer trees that are next to the river, then put in place a buffer zone of limestone, which neutralizes the acid.
If the water has basic pH, you can try to find out what chemicals are being added to the water and prevent them from entering the river.
Sites 2, 4, and 7 had a turbidity problem. Turbidity can be prevented by fortifying the stream banks and beds; this helps to reduce the amount of sediment in the runoff. Reducing the amount of grazing around the river and replanting the riparian zones also helps. In areas where roads, railroad, and construction occur, runoff needs to be redirected into settling ponds to reduce the amount of soil entering the water.
The riparian zone is often the most ignored feature of a river system. This area is important because it provides a buffer zone along the river. Unfortunately, it is easily damaged by human activity and grazing livestock. To repair the riparian zone, vegetation can be replanted along the stream bank, and fences added to create a buffer zone to prevent further damage. A healthy riparian zone helps prevent water pollution by filtering and absorbing potentially harmful chemicals such as nitrate and phosphorus before they enter the river. The riparian zone also keeps turbidity levels in check, helps maintain healthy water temperatures, and provides habitat for fish and macroinvertebrates.
After analyzing my data I realized that each of the problems I found could be linked to humans in some way, and my hypothesis was supported: Human activity was the major factor causing the decline in water quality along the Spanish Fork River. Protecting the water quality of the Spanish Fork River is important not only to ensure clean drinking water for the community, but also to protect the habitat of the June Sucker, an endangered species living downstream.
There has been a lot of interest in my research since I finished my study. It has been written up in four newspapers, and I was asked to present my findings before the Utah Water Quality Board, as well as the Water Environment Association of Utah Conference. I am the first student in my state to receive the Governor's Water Award. Currently, I am working on an education program to teach people how to protect water quality, because that is one of the best ways I can have an impact on improving things. To date, I have worked with over 800 individuals. I recently spoke with 150 students at Spanish Fork Junior High School to help them get started on their own water-quality-monitoring project.
One of the things I am most proud of is receiving an award from the U.S. Department of Interior, Bureau of Reclamation. The person interviewing me said, "It is about time someone studied the Spanish Fork River. The environmental problems in that area have been ignored for much too long." With recognition and support like this, I know that repairing the Spanish Fork River is possible, and that the water quality of this river system can be restored.
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More About This Resource...
This winning entry in the Museum's Young Naturalist Awards 2005 examines a river's drop in water quality. Shannon's essay—with illustrations, charts, photographs, and a reference list—details:
- how for the past three years she has been comparing the water quality of the rivers flowing into and out of Utah Lake
- her hypothesis that human activity was playing a major role in the drastic drop in water quality she discovered along the Spanish Fork River
- the seven test sites she selected and the effects she was testing for
- her finding that human activity was a major factor in the decline of the river's water quality
Less than 1 period
Supplement a study of biology with an activity drawn from this winning student essay.
- Send students to this online article, or print copies of the essay for them to read.
- Have them select a local river or body of water and then detail the sites within it that they would select to study its water quality and what effects they would test for.
OriginYoung Naturalist Awards