RANCHESTER — The Tongue River Watershed Steering Committee met Thursday in Ranchester to discuss ongoing efforts to monitor and improve water quality in the Tongue River. Included in the discussion was a presentation about the Tongue River Assessment started in late fall 2013.
The assessment is being completed by a team of retired Natural Resources Conservation Service engineers and Barr Engineering out of Buffalo.
Paul Starkey, a retired civil engineering technician for the NRCS, said the goal of the project is to assess the condition of the Tongue River watershed from Dayton upstream through Tongue River Canyon.
The assessment was the result of several requests by landowners and road crews to do work on the stream bank and road. Sheridan County and the Sheridan County Conservation District teamed up to find someone to assess the watershed and find ways to fix concerns that would provide consistency throughout the canyon, Starkey said.
The assessment team is using a process developed by NRCS for assessing watersheds that is geared toward private landowners.
Using the Stream Visual Assessment Protocol, the assessment team began working last fall with landowners along the river to chronicle their views and concerns about the watershed. At this point, all the worksheets completed by landowners are compiled and the team will begin meeting with landowners to verify that all the information is correct.
“It’s very important to us to have the landowners be a part of this process,” Starkey said.
The team has also completed survey work to assess geomorphology in the river and get an overall idea of what kind of river it is. This includes measurements of width, depth, flow rate and more. That information has been placed into a map to show erosion rates and expected erosion rates along the stream bank.
“There’s some areas of concern, obviously,” Starkey said, adding that the report will be finalized later in 2014.
At this point, the team has done a few stream bank stabilization projects, but its main objective is to assess the watershed.
“We won’t do any fixes right now. The information we gather can be used for leveraging funds, setting a benchmark of where we are and where we want to go in the future. And it will help the conservation district and the county set priorities,” Starkey said.
In other business, the meeting highlighted projects supported by the conservation district along the watershed since 1996, focusing especially on projects done in 2013 since the completion of the Tongue River Watershed Management Plan.
Since the meeting was attended by several new people, conservation district representatives also spent time offering education about funding that is available for projects that will improve water quality, Natural Resource Specialist Maria Burke said.
The Tongue River Watershed Steering Committee was formed in 1996, and the first extensive water quality testing in the Tongue River Watershed occurred between 1996 and 1999.
“Since 1999, we have completed our fourth round of surface water quality sampling in the Tongue River watershed, and in 2013 we extended our sampling boundary all the way to the Wyoming/Montana border,” Burke said.
In 2013, samples showed impairments of temperature, bacteria and sediment.
“The Conservation District hope is that through landowner improvement projects, we as a community can reduce those levels of impairments over time,” Burke said. “Each improvement project, if it’s relocating a corral off a creek, fencing off a riparian area from livestock and providing an alternative water source, or replacing an old or failing septic system, can potentially help reduce bacteria and sediment that enters into these surface waters in the Tongue River Watershed.”