Volunteers wade in to prevent pollution by helping to monitor the health of Truckee's watershed systems during this annual event which started in 2001.
The following is an account by Dana Madsen, a Snapshot Day volunteer, and resident of Truckee.
Now the Lord can make you tumble, And the Lord can make you turn, And the Lord can make you overflow, But the Lord can’t make you burn,
Burn on, big river, burn on. . .
-Randy Newman, “Burn On”
The river that runs through Truckee is a seemingly clean river. In fact, compared to industrially-polluted rives like the Cuyahoga in Ohio, immortalized in Randy Newman’s song because it used to occasionally catches fire, the Truckee seems pristine.
Or does it?
One Saturday in May, a mild day between spring storms, while other people were having a second cup of coffee or looking for their bicycle helmets, a group of about 40 Truckee-area volunteers grabbed thermometers, glass vials and chem-kits and hit the water to find out.
They were part of a statewide water quality monitoring program to measure the health of their watersheds and reduce or prevent pollution. The State Water Resource Control Board (SWRCB) initiated the program and facilitates regional projects. In the Lake Tahoe and Truckee River watershed, ‘Snapshot Day’ is an annual event sending teams of volunteers out to the lakes and streams to gather data.
The first Snapshot Day, in 2001, was not only successful in identifying problem spots and providing valuable water quality information, it also gave an enthusiastic public a chance to get in on the action.
I missed out on that year’s action, but got my feet wet (as many of us literally did) by volunteering for the annual event last May.
We were divided into small teams of two to four people, each with a trained team leader, assigned a site, and provided with testing equipment. Many of the leaders were knowledgeable professionals from area agencies, volunteering their time as citizen monitors and providing their teams with a ‘flash’ lesson in watershed ecology.
People showed up in tennis shoes and jeans, others in waders and useful-looking vests. We drove, biked or hiked to our monitor sites: along the Truckee River, on the many streams that feed it, and several lakes. Once there, we collected samples and took measurements of temperature, pH, dissolved oxygen, conductivity (a salinity indicator), turbidity (suspended particles) and fecal coliform. We also assessed fish and wildlife habitat. Cameras were provided to us for photographic records.
My teammates were a U.S. Forest Service hydrologist and a botanical illustrator with a background in conservation. I was outclassed and proved it early on by falling into shin-deep mud upstream of the first testing site. They cheerfully congratulated me and as we moved on, explained the significance of the measurements we were taking.
Temperature, pH, dissolved oxygen, turbidity, and salinity all affect the health of aquatic organisms, which evolve with specific environmental requirements. Changes in the chemistry of the water can signal problems upstream, and degradation of stream health will often snowball, affecting a wide and interested community of plants and animals.
For instance, if the trees along a tributary stream are cut down (or leaves sprayed with pesticides fall into the water) and more sunlight on the water causes the temperature to rise (then invertebrates die, fish starve), aquatic plants might die, leaving bare banks subject to erosion. The channel might deepen, leaving bank-side plants high and dry (so deer move on into your yard) and the eroded sediment might travel downstream to the river, which many already be loaded with sediment (and trout eggs suffocate). Further down the river, water treatment plants which are struggling to meet state clean water mandates might get angry. Somebody might get sued.
As you can see from the bracketed phrases, any part of the above scenario can begin or continue another problem. Use your imagination.
The stream I helped test that Saturday was clean and healthy and the results will be valuable as baseline, or standard-setting, data. But one year, results from other areas were not as positive. A team collecting samples downstream from the dam in Tahoe City reported disgusting smells and potential pollution – conditions so unpleasant that someone was bound to fall in. And they did.
Unpleasant discoveries can be useful, however, and some of the results from past years, alerted officials to problem spots such as those measuring high in fecal coliform, and in some cases, action taken quickly resulted in better water quality.
Not all of the data from Snapshot Day will lead to such gratifying results, but it will be analyzed and collated and made available to the public as well as local groups and agencies who will use it to keep our water clean and healthy – the kind of water into which you don’t mind falling.
For results of the past years of Snapshot Day, go to the
The event is usually held in May. To get more information, and to register, go to http://www.truckeeriverwc.org/ in March or April.
Dana Madsen is a Snapshot Day volunteer, a Truckee resident and she is active in environmental and conservation efforts in the region.