RiverNET app

Kyle Roberts, a field technician with the Yellowstone Ecological Research Center, prepares to install a RiverNET sensor station on a tributary of the Madison River.

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When Roby Roberts first started working for the Yellowstone Ecological Research Center, he was surprised by the amount of water monitoring data that is available but not shared between organizations and agencies.

“Every group has their own set of data,” he said. “Everybody wants to have control over it, but that doesn’t accomplish what we need.”

Now, Roberts — Yellowstone Ecological Research Center’s chief technology officer — and others with the nonprofit are trying to make sure data about the health of the upper Yellowstone watershed is timely, accessible and transparent, especially as climate change drives drought across the Greater Yellowstone region.

“If everybody works together to collect the data, then maybe it will be trusted. And by God do we need to trust in data these days,” said Bob Crabtree, Yellowstone Ecological Research Center’s chief scientist.

RiverNET app

A sensor station along an Upper Yellowstone River tributary in Paradise Valley provided live discharge data before the creek ran dry in the height of summer. According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, counties in southwest Montana were seeing severe to exceptional drought conditions in early August.

Yellowstone Ecological Research Center promotes community science — a model of research where scientists and the general public work together to collect and analyze data.

“Anybody who contributes new knowledge is a scientist, and the hallmark of a scientist is someone who doesn’t mind being proven wrong because they want to work with other people,” Crabtree said.

The community science model is part of why the research center developed the RiverNET app, which it launched for select groups around the end of July.

The RiverNET app is a free, cloud-based database that allows anyone to store and analyze data about water quality, temperatures and flows within the Upper Yellowstone River watershed in near real time and on a tributary level.

The app is open-sourced, meaning organizations and members of the public can add to the data that Yellowstone Ecological Research Center staff and volunteers collect and put on the site. The research center curates new information, identifying and tossing outliers, according to Yellowstone Ecological Research Center spokesperson Tory Dille.

Yellowstone Ecological Research Center plans to host workshops to teach people about data literacy and Montana Department of Environmental Quality-approved protocol for water monitoring, she said.

The research center has been in contact with and is supported by Paradise Valley landowners and groups like Trout Unlimited, the Western Sustainability Exchange, AMB West Philanthropies Conservation Fund and Patagonia, Dille said.

“They’re all going to want data for different reasons and they’ll look at it differently, so we’re just trying to help them use the platform and make sure we’re being really transparent about how we collected the data so they trust it,” she said.

A network of sensor stations set up along the upper Yellowstone watershed allows Yellowstone Ecological Research Center members to monitor flows and water temperatures.

Interested landowners can buy a sensor, which delivers readings to them every hour. When they walk near the sensor with their cell phone, the app downloads the measurements and uploads them to the RiverNET site.

Trained field technicians regularly go to 24 sites in the Paradise Valley to collect samples for water quality measurements. The samples are analyzed at Yellowstone Ecological Research Center’s lab according to DEQ and Environmental Protection Agency standards, Dille said.

The RiverNET app allows people to track changes in river systems faster, which is needed for timely decision-making, Crabtree said. Water temperature and flow readings can be collected and added to the platform in near real time.

“If we do our diagnostic analysis right, we can prescribe what actions need to be taken on the landscape or in the watershed or with a wildlife population,” Crabtree said.

The RiverNET app also allows people to monitor flows and temperatures in tributaries, which is important because most U.S. Geological Survey discharge gauges lie in the main stems of large rivers, according to Crabtree.

RiverNET app

A screen shot of the Yellowstone Ecological Research Center's new RiverNET app reveals stream flow measurements in East Fork Mill Creek for about a week in July, 2021.

Measuring water temperature also helps anglers, Dille said.

“For the outfitters in particular, the temperature information is really helpful because they don’t like to fish when the water is at a certain temperature,” he said. “We have (the measurements) at the tributary level, so they can really see their impact.”

Lil Erickson, executive director of Western Sustainability Exchange, said this year’s drought makes it important for ranchers to know about the water availability for their operations. RiverNET provides them with objective information that they can access quickly.

“With a lot of information gathered by agencies, there is a big lag time between when measurements are taken and when they are analyzed,” she said. “(RiverNET) is a really great tool for ranchers to make the best decisions possible for managing land during a really tough drought.”

Yellowstone Ecological Research Center hopes its water monitoring work can be applied to other river systems, including the Madison River watershed, Dille said.

The RiverNET app is the first of three that Yellowstone Ecological Research Center is developing on its larger cloud-based platform called EPIIC. The other two apps will be focused on tracking soil moisture and the migration routes of animals, she said.

Yellowstone River Closure

The Yellowstone River flows near Pray.

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Helena Dore can be reached at hdore@dailychronicle.com or at 582-2628.