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Volunteers Help Make Morro Bay Estuary One of State's Most Studied Ecosystems

In the shadow of Hollister Peak, Ann Kitajima and Chris Robinson wade into Chorro Creek. In their arms are plastic storage bins full of thermometers, water bottles, syringes and a variety of electronic measuring devices.

Over the next half hour, the pair will record a detailed snapshot of the quality of the water flowing down the creek to the Morro Bay estuary. The measurements include temperature, flow rates, conductivity and nitrate levels -- eight parameters in all.

The same procedure is repeated at 15 other creek sites in the 48,000-acre Morro Bay watershed. Meanwhile, kayakers take to the bay at dawn to measure the water's oxygen levels, temperature and clarity, while plankton pullers analyze phytoplankton samples to help the state track toxic red tides.

It's all part of the Morro Bay National Estuary Program's volunteer monitoring program designed to improve coastal water quality.

The Morro Bay watershed suffers from accelerated sedimentation, along with high bacteria levels. Information tracked by the volunteers helps estuary managers work with farmers and the public to address these problems.

Kitajima manages the program, and Robinson is one of about 100 volunteers who make the program work by donating 1,500 hours of their time each year.

In all, the estuary program has 10 ongoing and seasonal monitoring efforts, making the 2,300-acre Morro Bay estuary and its watershed that stretches from Morro Rock to the outskirts of San Luis Obispo one of the most studied ecosystems in the state.

'A sense of ownership' The data the volunteers are compiling is available to anyone who asks for them but are particularly useful for state and federal regulators and local land managers.

"It's pretty exciting," Kitajima said. "Without the volunteers the data wouldn't exist."

Estuary program managers say they are amazed at the dedication and diversity of their volunteers. Most are college students and retirees, but some are working professionals.

Some volunteer for as little as a day to participate in a bird count, while others, like Robinson, contribute their time every month. Robinson said he began volunteering in October 2006 as an educational experience.

"I'm really interested in water quality and conservation," he said. "It just seemed like a real good opportunity to learn more about monitoring."

Many of the volunteers say they get involved in the program because they want to conserve the environment and natural beauty of the area, said Dan Berman, estuary program director.

"Monitoring gives our volunteers a sense of ownership of where they live," he said. "They want to be a part of protecting it and understanding it."

Improving water quality

The monitoring and the other work of the estuary program are part of a larger trend in the state to improve coastal water quality. More than 10 years of monitoring by state water officials, Cal Poly and the estuary program show that the Morro Bay watershed has its share of water quality problems.

The biggest problem is accelerated sedimentation of the bay. The watershed also suffers from high bacteria levels, making bodily contact with creek water unsafe in some areas.

Other creeks are overloaded with nutrients and are losing freshwater flows. Too many nutrients cause some creeks and parts of the bay to become choked with green and brown algae mats that smother fish and cause wild fluctuations in dissolved oxygen levels.

The estuary program is addressing these problems by restoring creeks to their natural state and encouraging farmers and ranchers to fence off creeks to keep livestock out. Livestock are suspected to be a main source of bacteria in creeks.

The monitors also urge farmers and ranchers to employ the "best management practices," such as rotational cattle grazing. By using resource-friendly techniques, farmers can reduce erosion and limit the pollutants that enter creeks.

The monitoring program is an important tool in helping land managers and government officials measure whether these efforts are working, and it helps them spot problems as soon as they arise.

"We can't protect the bay if we don't know what's going on, what's working and what's not," Berman said.

A $550,000 grant from a voter-approved state water quality initiative pays for the monitoring program for three years. Estuary program managers plan to get additional grants to keep the program going.

Berman said he hopes the lessons the estuary program is providing will help other parts of the country that have similar water quality problems.

"It's a model system that can be applied elsewhere," he said.

 Source: The Tribune (San Luis Obispo, Calif.)


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