Jason Schleppe and the Ecoscapes team pulls one of their appartus from the Columbia River.

From algae to fish: studying the Columbia River food chain

Data will be used to look at best way to operate: BC Hydro

It’s not glamorous work by any means. Crouched below the Trans-Canada Highway on the west bank of the Columbia River, a team of biologists are scrubbing off rocks into buckets. A few metres away, a colleague is cleaning out the buckets and running the water through a filter.

“I never thought I’d get so good at cleaning out buckets,” said Jason Schleppe, the founder of Ecoscape, an environmental consultant firm, and leader of a study looking at algae and aquatic insect life in the Columbia River.

I first met Schleppe on the other side of the Columbia River where he had come ashore to talk about what I had just witnessed his team doing. They were hauling the Columbia River a fairly primitive looking apparatus that collects algae and aquatic insects so that Ecoscapes can measure both the quantity and rate of accumulation of both bottom-of-the-food-chain creatures.

With us is Karen Bray, a natural resource specialist with BC Hydro, and Jen Walker-Larsen, the BC Hydro stakeholder liaison officer. While Schleppe was out in the boat, Bray explained to me what the study was about.

Basically, she said, they were collecting data so the effects of reservoir levels and flow on aquatic life could be measured. Schleppe’s team was looking at the bottom of the food chain while another group was studying fish life.

This year marks the fifth year of the study. The first four years collected data before the Revelstoke 5 turbine was installed and a minimum flow put in place. Now the scientists are collecting data that will look at the impact of the new minimum flow, as well as the increased maximum flow made possibly by the new turbine.

“In the years down the road we’ll evaluate what happens now that we have that in place,” Bray said.

Schleppe arrived wearing a tuque and sporting his life jacket. He was slightly out of breath. “Those things are heavy,” he remarked, referring to the apparatus he had just pulled from the water.

Schleppe’s study involves placing collection apparatus at various points in the river. There are six transects in the Columbia River where data is collected – three above the golf course and three below – as well as several other sites along the river. The apparatus consist of a a styrofoam pad that is used to collect algae and a metal basket filled with rocks that collects aquatic insects.

There are 60 apparatus in total and once a week, Schleppe’s team heads out in their boat to collect them and bring them to shore, where they cut out portions of the styrofoam and scrub down the rocks so they can then get the measurements they need. The samples are then  sent off to various labs where the amount and kind of algae and insects are measured.

“We’re taking three metrics of algae production,” said Schleppe, before kindly dumbing it down for me: “How much algae there is.”

The buoys are placed along lines across the river so they can collect data from different elevations and water levels. Some apparatus are always in the water, while others can end up sitting on dry land. So far, a difference has been noticed in terms of how much life there is.

Basically, Schleppe told me, in deeper water, where there’s less light penetration, there’s less algae. As the water becomes shallower, production peaks because there’s more light. It then decreases at spots which are frequently dry.

“As we accumulate more years of data we’ll be able to hone in on those trends and go from there,” he said.

A week later, I was back at the same spot where I spoke with Schleppe. This time I met up with Ryan Liebe and Greg Sykes from Triton Environmental Consultants as they were preparing to launch their boat for the fish study they are conducting. The timing of the meeting was terrible – right during the third period of game one of the Stanley Cup finals. Fortunately, none of are die hard fans.

Triton collects data on juvenile fish from 60 sites along the river, Sykes said. “We take the boat through the sites with an electro-fisher and we’re collecting all the fish we can find.”

What that means is they zap the fish using an 800 volt current, stunning them briefly so they can collect them into the boat and take measurements. Different fish stay stunned for different amounts of time, so they have to move fast. They also have to be careful they don’t use too strong a current, less they burn the fish.

They focus on sites near the shore and to make sure they’re consistent, the work is done at night when the water is at its lowest; during the day the fluctuating river levels mean the shore line is constantly changing.

“Fish are more active at night, they move to the shore and you can sneak up on them better and actively catch them,” said Liebe.

Currently they are in the fourth year of a six year study. They said they’ve found 13 species of fish, including bull trout, rainbow trout, mountain whitefish, burbot, sturgeon and more.  The first three years gave them the baseline data on fish life before minimum flow and Rev 5. Now they’re collecting data so they can make a comparison.

“There’s some good consistencies between the three years so we’ve got a solid baseline to measure the change – if there is one – with the minimum flow,” said Liebe.

When the study is done, Karen Bray and various researchers will sit down to look at the results, she said. They will compare pre- and post-minimum flow numbers and look at the data from a range of operations.

“We’re trying to get some idea of how best we can operate – if there’s anything we can do that’s going to benefit fish in the Columbia,” she said.

While it’s still too early to make any determinations about the impact of minimum flow and aquatic life, there’s one thing the researchers all seem to agree on – there’s more water in the river and they don’t get stuck on the boat as often.

“Many of the contractors have spent a few nights on a gravel bar and had to walk out,” said Bray. Higher water levels means that hasn’t happened this year – yet.