The winter of early 2022 was a time of sharing for the Snoqualmie Tribe’s water quality program. Kelsey Payne, the Water Quality Program Manager, organized two trainings during the rainy/watery winter months. First, site visits with Bellevue College chemistry students and second, field day trainings with the crew members of the Washington Conservation Corps working with the Snoqualmie Indian Tribe.
Over the last year, the Snoqualmie Tribe has worked with the Bellevue College Chemistry Department to develop a new program that inspires students to see chemistry through the lens of water quality. This program also considers chemistry in a broader context by learning about what water quality means to the Snoqualmie Tribe. While this program is developing, we decided a good first step would be to invite students out to the field for a little extra credit and gauge their interest in the world of water quality. Five students moved their studies from Bellevue to Snoqualmie to meet on the Snoqualmie Tribe’s Reservation in the cold days of March.
We started with introductions at the Casino’s stormwater pond and talked about why the Water Quality Program is a vital part of the Environmental and Natural Resources Department. Detecting changes in the water helps us respond to problems more quickly and precisely. We talked about the importance of clean water to the birds, frogs, river otters, bears, and bobcat family that call the Snoqualmie Reservation home. Every single living organism, critter, and beast needs access to clean, unpolluted water. We talked about the ecosystems that water feeds as it passes through forests, ponds, and meadows. We talked about where the water goes once it leaves the reservation; eventually flowing into Kimball Creek, then joining the Snoqualmie River, descending over Snoqualmie Falls, the birthplace of the Snoqualmie Tribe. Better knowing the relationships water has with not only a particular place, but the places it has been and will go, the homes it creates along the way, helps us understand our own relationship with water, here and elsewhere too. These introductions, to one another and to the water, prepared us to explore the streams and wetlands that make up the waterways of the Snoqualmie Reservation.
Learn more about this connectedness in the video above!
One question that came up during both visits was about the variable pH of water around the Snoqualmie Reservation. pH is the measurement of the balance of hydrogen ions (H+) and hydroxide ions (OH-) in liquid, defining whether a substance is acidic, neutral, or basic. Neutral waters will have an even number of H+ and OH-, making the classic H2O molecule. When there are more hydrogen ions than hydroxide ions, the water is said to be acidic. When the hydroxide ions are greater in number, the water is considered basic. While pH never strayed far from a neutral 7, there were sections of the streams that were more basic or acidic, typically ranging between 6.5 and 8. Some of this, I explained, is due to natural variation in the environments where the water is measured. Wetlands and conifer needle deposits can cause water to become slightly more acidic, and mineral deposits from surrounding rock can make water a little more basic. However, the real concern is when we see large variations from a neutral pH. Pollutants like manure runoff and industrial waste can cause waters to become acidic, whereas runoff that includes oil, gas, cement, and soap can cause waters to become basic. When too many pollutants accumulate, there are negative consequences for the wildlife using that water. Toxic waters can cause damage to gills and skin, as well as harm biodiversity, reproduction, and growth in all species. Consideration of the watershed’s health and the wildlife who call the reservation home is why we monitor pH every month.
Students of water quality take many forms. Our Washington Conservation Corps (WCC) crew members are early career professionals who come to the Department of Ecology’s WCC program to build their skills in restoration and conservation fieldwork. The WCC program is designed to provide young adults with hands-on work experience that will propel them to the next stage in their career. For most of their term, our WCC crew spends hands-on time with native plants, reforesting and restoring the floodplain forests of the Snoqualmie and Sammamish watersheds. But for one day each month this winter they came out in pairs to help collect water quality measurements around the Snoqualmie Reservation.
Much like with the Bellevue students, heading straight out to the field isn’t the first step in our process. First, we spend some time getting to know the equipment, and calibrate the probes we use to collect water quality data. We discuss the importance of each parameter that we measure and remind ourselves why we care about accurately reading temperature, pH, dissolved oxygen, and turbidity; and what those measurements mean practically to the people and wildlife that rely on water. After these introductions, we are ready to head out into the field and tackle data collection at all 15 water quality sites.
While collecting data with the WCC crew, many of the same questions come up as mentioned before. What do variations in this or that variable indicate? Are these the type of variations we would expect to see? And what is our response should we detect something out of place or alarming? The discussions that follow from these questions not only help us explore what we would like to see in the water, but how we can keep harmful contaminants from entering these systems in the first place. Inclusion leading to education, encouraging stewardship, hopefully leading to a more resilient, better place for living beings.
As the water quality program grows it is important to remember the benefits of including our future generation of environmental leaders in the work we do to improve water quality in the Snoqualmie Watershed. When knowledge and values are passed to the next generation, when our stewardship and care flows down the generational stream, branching out and joining paths, we extend the invitation for others to join the conversation. We hope to include everyone not only in finding solutions to water quality issues, but to nurturing the water that gives life in this world.
Department of Ecology, Let’s Talk Science: A pH Solution https://ecology.wa.gov/Blog/Posts/February-2014/Let%E2%80%99s-Talk-Science-A-pH-Solution
Environmental Protection Agency, pH Overview https://www.epa.gov/caddis-vol2/ph#tab-1