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
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.
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
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
"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
"It's a model system that can be applied elsewhere,"
Source: The Tribune (San
Luis Obispo, Calif.)