PARADISE VALLEY — Patrick Cross, research director for the Yellowstone Ecological Research Center, stood on the banks of Mill Creek Friday, holding his phone near a sensor and uploading data that will help explain why this tributary to the Yellowstone River goes dry in the summer and how its health could be improved.

The Montana Climate Solutions Council, a statewide group developing policies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and help the state adapt to climate change, hopes to expand on projects like this to improve the climate data about the state.

“We need good science to make good policy,” said Tom Armstrong, a member of the council from Bozeman. “Having this data can help us understand how the climate is changing and inform ways we need to adapt to these changes. ”

The Mill Creek data collection is part of a larger, long-term monitoring project in the Upper Yellowstone River Watershed — RiverNET. That project involves a network of sensors and sampling sites across the Paradise Valley that provide data on water quality and quantity and that will eventually provide short-term forecasts of discharge, temperature and turbidity.

Landowners, fishing guides, local residents and scientists with the Yellowstone River Ecological Research Center are collecting and using the data.

Rick Wollum, the retail manager at Angler’s West Fly Fishing Outfitters, is among the data collectors. He stood in the Yellowstone River near Mill Creek on Friday, collecting insects floating downstream and placing them onto a plate to identify and count them.

The Yellowstone Ecological Research Center is developing an app that will speed up the process by enabling volunteers to upload photos of anything from insects to stream bank erosion that might provide important information on water quality.

The RiverNET data will be incorporated into a publicly available predictive model that people can use to answer questions like how snowmelt or a landslide affects the Yellowstone River and its tributaries, said Bob Crabtree, the founder and chief scientist of the Yellowstone Ecological Research Center. The data can also help people determine when is the best time for them to use water from the river for activities like irrigation.

“RiverNET fits into the work the council is doing and hopes to expand on,” Armstrong said. “It can help us address climate change as a state and harnesses the power of our local communities by having them collect the data, which they can then use to make decisions.”

Patrick Byorth, director of Trout Unlimited’s Montana Water Project, said that events like the 2016 fish kill in the Yellowstone River demonstrate the need for RiverNET’s data. A parasite killed thousands of whitefish that year, but he said it’s still unclear what environmental conditions led to the incident.

“The whitefish were a harbinger. Unfortunately, 15,000 had to die to show us that things are changing,” Byorth said. “This data can help us fill in the gaps and better understand how things are changing.”

Two sensors for RiverNET sit on Mike Patrick’s property along Mill Creek. He’s been working with the Yellowstone Ecological Research Center to collect water data and to help scientists understand which data local ranchers like himself could use to improve their decision-making.

“There’s a lot of things that are happening that we don’t understand, and this data helps with that,” Patrick said. “And the forecasting could help us use the creek in a way that is better for the environment.”

Perrin Stein can be reached at 406-582-2648 or at pstein@dailychronicle.com. Follow her on Twitter @PerrinStein.

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