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New machines plumb depths of Whitewater River

With a measuring tape, power screwdriver and sweat, Cole Weaver helped build six platforms he hopes will help the Whitewater River. The platforms will hold machines that will delve deep into the water quality of the Whitewater, a river Weaver loves.

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Winona State University grad student Cole Weaver measures one of six platforms made Saturday in Stockton to hold special monitors that will keep track of water quality on the three branches of the Whitewater River. With him is Carlton Folz of Eau Claire, Wis.
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STOCKTON — With a measuring tape, power screwdriver and sweat, Cole Weaver helped build six platforms he hopes will help the Whitewater River.

The platforms will hold machines that will delve deep into the water quality of the Whitewater, a river Weaver loves.

The Winona State University grad student, two other students and professors built two platforms each for the South, Middle and North branches of the famed trout-fishing river. The machines will monitor basic data but also take samples when rain or snowmelt swells the river’s branches. After a heavy rain in late July 2015, thousands of brown and rainbow trout, suckers, chubs, dace and other fish were found dead. But the contaminated water was long gone from the system before people reported trout dying.

If there is another big kill, the six machines, which Weaver will help monitor, might help find the source. The machines, a hybrid of different pieces put together by LimnoTech of the Twin Cities, are programmed to take samples during high water so researchers at the University of Minnesota can analyze them. The machines are expected to arrive at WSU today.

"I grew up around here trout fishing," said Weaver, who grew up in Lewiston. "I love the environment and being in the outdoors as much as I can."

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It was the kill that brought him back to the area, said Weaver, a grad student in applied research and management of natural resources. He was doing resource research in other states, but he came back when a chance to work on the Whitewater came up.

"It was a project I cared about," he said.

Neal Mundahl, the WSU biology professor in charge of the water study, said it will cost about $500,000. The money will come from the state’s Legacy Amendment. The study is expected to last two years, but the machines can later be put on other streams. Nothing this in depth has ever been done in Minnesota, he said.

Even if they don’t track an actual kill, "we will get tons of data, no matter what," he said. "Our goal is never seeing a fish kill, never detect anything really nasty."

The machines will continually look at stream levels, temperature, dissolved oxygen and turbidity. More sophisticated looks will be done when rivers are high, he said.

Only the branches will be monitored before they meet around Elba. The river farther south doesn’t have the steep slopes, nearby farm fields and erosion found farther north.

The impetus to apply for the grant came from Jeff Broberg, president of the Minnesota Trout Association and a resident upriver of the kill area, Mundahl said. Broberg, a professional geologist, did research on his own and pointed a finger at a chemical used to bathe cattle hooves.

The Minnesota Department of Agriculture, however, doesn’t track that chemical and doesn’t think it would be a problem because dairies have been using it for years.

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Broberg, however, rejected that conclusion, and said the MDA is not doing its job in monitoring the chemical.

Mundahl said the water tests done by the U of M can detect chemicals in parts per billion or even in lower amounts. They will also look for chemicals that form when the original chemicals break down; some ag chemicals are worst when they break down, he said.

"We are looking for some of those newer ones, the ones that have not been examined too often," he said. "That was the kind of information that was lacking when we had that fish kill."

It’s possible one of the chemicals caused the kill, or maybe the source was something else, he said. They might find the problem is with the instructions on how to safely apply farm chemicals or maybe they will find they stay toxic longer.

Besides putting out the machines, the study will also gather baseline data on branches every few miles. Another study did that about 13 years ago, but a few severe floods have changed the branches, Mundahl said. The Minnesota departments of natural resources and agriculture and the Pollution Control Agency are also doing studies.

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