Hydrology: It’s a Look

Already unsteady on the invisible rocky surface, I found myself falling backwards as I stepped into the fast moving channel. Catching myself on a willow tree, I didn’t quite end up submerged, just pleasantly spattered by the cool water of the Tongue River. It was my first day out in waders on the river, and I was determined to not make a fool of myself as we collected data for an upcoming bank restoration project. The river had been showing signs of increasingly poor conditions for years, but before any restoration work could take place, the one hydrologist in our BLM office needed to perform some 20 different analyses along 300 points per river bank for his report. So, although a plant biologist and rec intern, I was gladly roped into the world of hydrology to help.

The Tongue River, Wyoming

Our first day out at the river was spent establishing the data collection points every 300 feet along the river. This was before we ordered the waders, so my fellow intern and I covered the land-based jobs while the hydrologist dutifully hiked up and down the river measuring the distance. We would run to and from the truck, making metal caps with the proper distances stamped on them, grabbing spray painted blue posts to mark these metal monuments, and collecting GPS data on the fancy Trimble unit we were using for the project. It was when I found myself squeezing through dense stands of willow trees to reach the hydrologist and hand off our many tools that I truly felt happy; while I have enjoyed my experiences in sagebrush country, here, slogging through trees with twigs in my hair and mud flecking my face, I felt at home surrounded by plants being useful. And we were useful. By the end of the day, the hydrologist officially signed us on to the project and ordered the waders so we could really dive in.

It was a hot, muggy day when I first tried out my waders. They are made of Neoprene, a very thick buoyant material that, I quickly learned, are not suitable for any land hiking on hot days. Only in the cool water is it tolerable, although the pressure from the river makes it feels like you’ve vacuum packed your legs in an attempt to keep them dry. Our task for the day was to make bank assessments for every distinct section of the river. These assessments included taking note of the bank height, root depth and density, surface protection, sediment types and degree of stratification for these sediments. Each of these categories received a numeric value which, when manipulated according to a template, would give you an overall rating for the health and stability of each section of the bank. It is a somewhat rough estimate of health, however, as you are supposed to apply each set of observations to a given section of stream; making these assessments at every point along the river would be time consuming, absurd, and not effective in the long run due to the ever-changing bank geography.

Me, trying not to fall over in a pretty fast current

As we hiked the river (downstream, the more energy-sensible direction), the hydrologist pointed out features of the river for which I never had official vocabulary before. Pools, well-known as the deeper areas of rivers, turn into glides, or smooth areas of fast-moving water. These are followed by riffles, or shallow areas where fast-moving water is agitated by rocks, and then go into runs which make up the main body of moving water. These four areas repeat all down the river and once you recognize them, you begin to recognize the various types of erosion or deposits that are associated with each. There was also bizarrely a lot of car parts protruding from the banks. When I asked about it, I was told that dumping cars on the sides of banks and covering them with soil used to be a widespread restoration method in the 1950s, resulting in many rivers across the country with old decaying cars randomly popping up. They provide a tough problem: on one hand, they are polluting the river and becoming dangerous debris while on the other, many of them are still doing their job stabilizing the riverbank. Our hydrologist will have to make the call as to whether we will rip up the bank to get at the semi-revealed cars, or if we will wait for a future restoration project to do that.

I am very happy to be working on this hydrology project. It gives me the opportunity to learn about a system which I’ve never really focused on before, as well as asking an expert millions of questions that he has been kind enough to answer. We will continue working on river data collection for the next two month, by which point I’m sure I will love the warmth my Neoprene waders provide. Until then, I’ll just rock the sweaty end-of-summer look. And it truly is a look.

Buffalo BLM Rec Intern

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