Jennifer Ender has her hand on the pulse of rivers in southeast Minnesota. As a pollution control specialist for the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, she checks the health of several rivers and contributing streams twice a month.
On the banks of West Indian Creek in Wabasha County, Ender opens her laptop made for rugged conditions, unlocks the stream monitoring station, connects to the data recorder, and starts downloading data from the creek. This site is the first stop of a 130-mile round trip for Ender in the drainage areas of the Zumbro and Whitewater rivers.
The station is loaded with equipment that collects data every 15 minutes from sensors in the creek below. The sensors transmit the water level, the degree of turbidity or murkiness, and water temperature. Ender will also take water samples to measure total suspended solids (matter floating in the water), nutrient levels, and suspended volatile solids (a measurement of algae).
After pulling on waders, Ender steps into the stream to install a temperature sensor, clean another sensor, measure the water clarity, and take water samples for lab analysis. Occasionally, Ender will measure how fast the stream is flowing by taking measurements every 6 to 12 inches across the streambed. She also snaps photos of each monitoring site, looking for changes in the stream. At the West Indian Creek site, she still sees sand deposits and woody debris from a flood in the fall of 2010. Ender is responsible for the accuracy of the data—and there’s a lot of data, with 136 readings a day from some sensors, for 180 days or more a year.
“We’re out here to check the water quality of the stream, to see how healthy it is,” she says. “We analyze the data we collect, so we can determine if there are any problems with the stream—like too much nitrate or phosphorus—so people can be out here fishing and using the stream.”
Protecting our water quality
Ender makes sure the equipment is functioning and trouble shoots any problems such as low batteries and loose wires. She analyzes the data and prepares it for publishing at the end of the season, which runs from snow-melt to October. Co-workers and local partners will use the data to detect problems with the stream’s health and decide on strategies for protection and restoration.
A love for the outdoors and fishing led Ender to a degree in environmental biology from St. Mary’s University in Winona. After working for the Iowa DNR, she joined the MPCA in 2006 and works out of the Rochester office.
While this day in mid-April is ideal with temperatures in the 60s and ample sunshine, Ender spends many water monitoring days out in the rain and cold. In fact, she needs to monitor during rain events to catch the peak flows in streams. She can access the stream level gauges via internet and telephone lines from just about anywhere. If the levels rise by 6 inches or more, then Ender will head for the streams.
"The streams can rise really fast, just like that," she says with a snap of her fingers. "They go up and down in one day."
That peak is important to catch because it often correlates to flushes of pollutants into streams.
Ender's route takes her down back roads and through woods where there is no mobile phone service. After the stop at West Indian Creek, which flows to the Zumbro River, she heads for four sites in the Whitewater River area in Winona County.
At the North Branch of the Whitewater River, near the town of Elba, Ender explains the site is popular for trout fishing. Plenty of fish are jumping in the stream, where the 2010 flood changed its sandy bottom to rock and carved deeper pools in the river bed.
At the South Branch of the Whitewater, near the town of Altura, Ender climbs a three-rung stepladder to access the station, which is set in a protective pipe several feet above the ground to protect it from flooding.
The next stop is Rollingstone Creek near the town of the same name.
"It will be interesting to see what Rollingstone is today," she says. "When the other sites are 100-plus, it's usually down around 60." The numbers refer to the centimeters of clarity. Ender fills a special tube with water to measure the clarity. Today, all the stream sites are 100-plus centimeters, even Rollingstone Creek, meaning the water is clear.
Two local residents stop and jokingly ask how the fishing is going. Ender says people often stop to see what she’s doing and she likes explaining the work.
The last stop of the day is Garvin Brook near Minnesota City. The water runs clear and cold. A bicyclist stops at the bridge overhead to take in the idyllic scene.
Back at the office
After the usual downloading of data, measuring the water clarity and taking samples, Ender packs the truck for the fifth time that day and heads for the office. She needs to send the water samples to the Minnesota Department of Health lab in St. Paul by 4 p.m.
The data collected on this day will eventually trickle out to several projects, including those targeting bacteria and water clarity problems in Garvin Brook, Rollingstone Creek, and the Whitewater River. Some stretches of the Whitewater also have nitrate levels that violate the state standard.
While the data will appear as numbers or graphs on a computer screen, they represent much more to people who live and visit here. To them, the data represent recreational opportunities, environmental health, and economic benefits that derive from healthy waters.