Wet and Wild

Wet and Wild

When I think of deserts I usually think about sand, sand, more sand, and A LOT of heat. I don’t usually think about rain or water or anything wet and cold. But these past two weeks out in the field made me rethink all of that.

Much of these past few weeks has been dedicated to learning about and practicing my water quality monitoring skills with my supervisor, Amanda Foust. Water quality is one of the main focuses of Amanda’s position as a biological science technician with the Southeast Utah Group, and during these two weeks I helped Amanda complete some of her regular water quality monitoring trips.

Water quality monitoring at Arches National Park and Canyonlands National Park is an essential part of natural resources management in these parks because of the arid environment. Water shapes not just the rocks and canyons of the area but also the flora, fauna, and human activity and habitation. At each site, specific parameters are measured and recorded in order to determine the quality of the seep, spring, or river. We use a portable probe to measure the core parameters of specific conductance, temperature, pH, and dissolved oxygen content. We also measure the volumetric flow of springs which tells the volume of water that passes through the spring over a specific unit of time.

This week, Amanda focused on teaching me how to measure the water quality parameters and take the measurements all on my own, and by the end of the week, I was almost an expert. I perfected how to calibrate the probe and how to operate it and take the actual measurements. I also learned to take volumetric flow measurements by catching a specific amount of water in a bucket and timing how long it takes for the bucket to fill to a certain level.

Me catching a volumetric flow measurement at Little Spring in Canyonlands National Park

It’s hard to see but the water was knee-deep and quite cold!

And beyond just learning more about scientific field work, I also was totally immersed in what it really means to live in a desert environment. That’s because with the end of June came the start of more than just July. I was given my first taste of what is referred to as monsoon season: the part of summer where it can either be so hot that you think your skin will melt or raining harder than I thought possible in a desert. And I got to experience both.

During one of our water quality monitoring trips we hiked in a canyon in the Needles district of Canyonlands National Park. On the hike down into the canyon the heat was stifling. Thankfully, over the past two months that I’ve spent in Utah I’ve become slightly more heat-adapted, and the saving grace was the shade that the riparian vegetation provided and our end destination being a beautiful spring surrounded by lush vegetation and towering rock formations.

Me at Kirk’s Spring in Canyonlands National Park. This place was beautiful!

But the hike back out was where I got to experience a part of the desert that I’ve never before seen. About halfway through the 5-mile hike back, it began to rain. At first it was just a few droplets here and there, but by the time we were halfway up the canyon we were completely soaked. The trail turned to mud and in some spots we were hiking in water up to our ankles. There was even a section that was flowing so fast and so high that my two supervisors and I had to form a triangle and grab onto each other’s packs to cross the water without being swept away. But in the midst of the downpour, the water transformed the canyon into something beautiful. Waterfalls formed all around us on the rocky overhangs and cliffs, and the sheer amount of water was breathtaking. By the time we reached the top of the canyon the rain was beginning to subside and as the sun came out I was able to see with my own eyes just how vital water is in the desert. Looking out over the canyon it looked as if the desert had suddenly come alive again. The plants and the ground, once dry and dull, seemed to be singing with thanks for the rain and moisture. It was truly a sight to behold.

This week really showed me just how vital water is in an environment like one that I am living in, and it gave me a whole new perspective on the flora and fauna that are able to thrive in these harsh conditions. Not only was I able to see with my own eyes the influence of water, but I was also able to take part in ensuring that water is able to positively benefit the lands of Southeast Utah in the future.

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