Montana State University

Volunteers help MSU sample Big Sky streams

September 13, 2005 -- By Evelyn Boswell, MSU News Service

Kristin Gardner demonstrates how to collect water samples for her study of the Gallatin River watershed. She is standing in the Middle Fork of the West Fork of the Gallatin River near Big Sky. (MSU photo by Evelyn Boswell).    High-Res Available

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Tel: (406) 994-4571
Todd and Julie Kipfer rode their mountain bikes 4 1/2 miles up the North Fork drainage of the Gallatin River to sample the water. At 7,100 feet, they almost reached snow, but couldn't avoid mud. Kristin McGill and Sue Barton dipped their water bottles into a stream along the Lone Mountain Trail. Nine-year-old Basil Leuzinger collected water from any stream his dad and teacher took him.

"We're doing a sampling, a snapshot in time," Kristin Gardner explained on a recent Saturday as she waited at the Big Sky community park for the first of 13 shivering teams to return with water samples from the Gallatin River watershed.

On a rainy, chilly morning that called for coffee instead of lemonade, Gardner, a doctoral student in the Department of Land Resources and Environmental Sciences at Montana State University, organized 26 adults and at least eight children into teams to collect water samples from 60 sites in the Big Sky drainage area of the Gallatin River watershed. The watershed is 131 square miles.

"We wanted some sites relatively pristine, some that had development closer to the streams and some that didn't," Gardner said.

After the teams turned in their water samples and Gardner figured water flow and discharge, she rushed the samples back to MSU. She then filtered them and analyzed them in the MSU geomicrobiology lab in Leon Johnson Hall.

"If there are any microbes in there, you won't want them using up the nitrogen and phosphorous, Gardner said, explaining the reason for the quick lab work.

The volunteers will return to the 60 sites three more times in the next year, Gardner said. She will analyze the water chemistry each time, then study all the data, make models and graph her findings. She wants to determine how stream chemistry relates to land cover in the Big Sky area. Land cover refers to geology and vegetation, as well as structures like houses, bridges and septic tanks.

Earlier this year, the Big Sky Institute at MSU received $1.8 million from the National Science Foundation to link MSU researchers with six small schools in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. The schools are located at Belgrade, Big Sky, Bozeman, Gallatin Gateway, Manhattan and Pray. Gardner's project involves the Ophir School at Big Sky as well as the Blue Water Task Force at Big Sky and the Montana Department of Environmental Quality. Other MSU researchers working on Gardner's project are Lisa Graumlich, director of the Big Sky Institute; Gardner's main advisor, Brian McGlynn; Duncan Patten and Rick Lawrence.

Gardner's work fits well with his, said Pete Schade, watershed planner at the DEQ. Helping Gardner during the first sampling, Schade said he sometimes hires contractors to find the information he needs. Other times, he works with groups or researchers like Gardner.

"So far, it's worked out pretty good," he said as he collected water samples and reports. "We are kind of killing a bunch of birds with one stone."

Teachers at the Ophir School said they are benefitting from the collaboration, too. Not only are their students collecting water samples, but they will learn from Gardner in the classroom.

"Kristin is one of the fellows coming to our school and we wanted to see what she does. We wanted to help her out," said Barton, a middle school teacher who teaches science and language arts. She and McGill, a student teacher at Ophir, were the first team to turn in their water samples.

Jeremy Harder, a fourth and fifth grade teacher, said Ophir is involved in a year-long service learning project on the Gallatin River watershed. The recent sampling work and learning about water quality is part of that project. Since Leuzinger and Anna Middleton collected water samples, they will receive extra credit and act as his assistants in the classroom.

Gardner's project is funded by the Montana DEQ, the U.S. Geological Survey, and the Environmental Protection Agency in addition to the NSF through the Big Sky Institute.

Evelyn Boswell, (406) 994-5135 or