University teams with tribe-based council to gather watershed data

Efforts to gain knowledge about the Kuskowkim River watershed is the object of a canoe trip that will take team leader Martin Leonard, ’02, from the foothills of Mount McKinley to the Bering Sea coast.

“There’s very little cohesive baseline water science data,” Leonard told the Journal of Commerce in its September issue.

Leonard earned his MBA in telecommunications management from APU. In addition to paddling the river before, he’s an experienced kayaker who has completed a Bering Sea crossing.

His work is part of a University partnership with the Kuskokwim Watershed Council, a group of 39 tribes whose village-based environmental technicians monitor conditions involving water, solid waste and contaminated sites.

At 702 miles, the Kuskowkim is the ninth largest river in the country and is considered the continent’s long free-flowing river. Leonard and a partner plan to paddle from McGrath to the Bering Sea starting this month. Baseline data are needed to guide potential development, such as mining and hydro energy, and to understand reasons for a decline in the river’s once-abundant salmon runs.

Preparations for the journey began in June at the University’s Fisheries, Aquatic Science and Technology Lab, directed by Assistant Professor Bradley Harris. He said that APU environmental studies graduate students will help Watershed Council science staff with initial analysis and mapping so that Kuskokwim data may be shared with other agencies.

For instance, ES grad student Sabrina Larsen is already working on a GIS mapping project that visually represents layers of information ranging from Kuskokwim water quality and land ownership to languages spoken in the region and patterns of subsistence hunting and gathering. Leonard’s data will be added to the GIS.

“Working with Martin is great,” Harris said. “This project will yield some very important data for the Kuskokwim watershed.”

According to the Journal, data for Leonard’s longitudinal study are gathered in five-minute increments using a two-foot-long cylindrical instrument that samples the river near the surface. New telemetry equipment permits river data to be uploaded in real time, by satellite or mobile phone, for colleagues to see and monitor.

In addition to APU, project support comes from Alaska Native groups and federal agencies.

The Watershed Council project is an example of natural resources research that Harris and FAST lab students are pursuing for agency and industry partners around the state.

Projects have sent APU students into the field to sample halibut in Homer, survey razor clams in Ninilchik and analyze fisheries data collected by Bering Sea trawls.

A recent partnership with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game has Harris’s ichthyology class sampling ear bones from 400 sockeye salmon heads; student work is aimed at helping fisheries managers understand how Lower Cook Inlet hatcheries are contributing to the Kachemak Bay commercial harvest.

Entities that have expressed interest in the study include National Geographic and a water-based street-view mapping project by Google.