Monitoring platform protects Penobscot Indian Nation, culture

By on January 19, 2012

A water quality monitoring platform in the Penobscot River is helping the Penobscot Indian Nation protect and restore the heart of their culture.

The platform floats in Dolby Pond, an impoundment on the Penobscot River and one of the more than 110 sites on rivers, streams and lakes that the Penobscot Nation’s Water Resources Program has been monitoring since the early ‘90s.

In the past 15 years, blooms in the main stem of the Penobscot River have gotten more severe and have shifted from green algae to cyanobacteria. The platform project began after a particularly bad cyanobacteria bloom in 2007 led the state of Maine to fine an upstream paper mill for excess phosphorous discharges.

The Water Resources Program decided it was up to them to better understand the daily conditions in the Dolby Pond impoundment. Money made available as a result of the 2007 violation along with a grant from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has funded the purchase of an array of monitoring instruments that continuously measure parameters like dissolved oxygen and chlorophyll a concentrations.

“This will help further our work to protect and provide a place where we can utilize the river the way our ancestors have for thousands of years,” said Jan Paul, tribal member and field and lab technician with the water resource program.  “As a Penobscot woman and mother, it is my duty to make sure seven generations from now have cleaner water than what my father had.”

The floating platform is equipped with:

Turner C6 measuring chlorophyll a, phycocyanin, colored dissolved organic matter, and turbidity
YSI 6920 measuring pH, temperature, dissolved oxygen, conductivity, and turbidity
LI-COR 190 Quantum Sensor measuring photosynthetically active radiation
Vaisala WXT520 multi-parameter weather sensor
NexSens datalogger publishes the measurements online

No blooms have occurred in Dolby Pond since 2007, said Angie Reed, the Penobscot Indian Nation’s water resources planner. Reed said the data will give the Nation more knowledge about the cause and effect of blooms. The chlorophyll a and phycocyanin measurements will hopefully give an early warning if another bloom starts to form.

“So that will be the real test,” Reed said. “But we’re beyond happy that we’ve gotten this up and running so we can work out all the kinks before the next one happens, if the next one happens.”

The mill responsible for the 2007 violation has been offline for the last few years but has recently changed ownership. If the mill once again starts producing pulp, it will do so under a new and relatively strict limit on its phosphorous discharges set by the state, Reed said. The state has also proposed new limits for total phosphorous and chlorophyll a allowed in waterbodies across Maine.

But it’s not yet clear whether any of these new standards will be strong enough to prevent another bloom in Dolby Pond, and there isn’t any other work like this planned to determine whether the standards are working, Reed said. That makes the Penobscot Indian Nation’s monitoring projects all the more important.

“We’re the only ones out there on a continuous basis saying, ‘What’s going on in Dolby Pond?'” Reed said.

Measurements from the instruments on the floating platform are logged continuously and broadcast to an easily accessible website. Reed said it makes a big difference to be able to quickly look at trends for parameters like chlorophyll a or make sure equipment is functioning without retrieving, downloading and graphing data.

But another important effect of having the data online doesn’t have anything to do with permits or parameters.

Water quality monitoring can be complex business, often cloaked in complicated jargon that the public doesn’t easily grasp. But when people go online and see the data coming from the platform, it’s easier for them to understand the Water Resources Program’s monitoring work as part of the bond between the Penobscot people and their river.

“Even if they don’t understand the parameters, they can see the result,” Reed said. “They can say, ‘Oh, that’s out in our river sending data to this website. It’s ours.'”

The river flows through Penobscot Nation reservation lands and has historically supplied drinking water, food, medicine and transportation.

“The People of the Penobscot have always believed that this river was our lifeblood,” said Butch Phillips, Tribal Elder, Penobscot Indian Nation. “In honor of our Ancestors, and for the protection of the future generations, we must continue the efforts to restore the sacredness to the river.”

Image credits: Angie Reed, Penobscot Indian Nation

About Jeff Gillies

Jeff Brooks-Gillies has written about science, energy and the environment for going on 10 years. He's a native Michigander who, after a stint in Colorado, lives in Indianapolis with his wife and two kids.

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