Water Resources Research Act Program

Details for Project ID 2016MT304B

Student Fellowship: Transportation, Sediment-Association, and the Future of Microbial Contaminants on the Little Bighorn River

Institute: Montana
Year Established: 2016 Start Date: 2016-03-01 End Date: 2017-02-28
Total Federal Funds: $1,000 Total Non-Federal Funds: $440

Principal Investigators: Keenan Brame

Abstract: Pathogen contamination is responsible for 30% of pollution of all assessed river and streams in the United States [1]. Pathogen contamination poses a concern to human-water contact, places stress on water treatment plants, and can effect river-groundwater interface, affecting nearby well owners [2, 3, 4]. The Little Bighorn River, located on the Crow Reservation in south-central Montana, holds significant cultural importance to members of the community and is the source of municipal water for the largest town on the Reservation, Crow Agency, and an Indian Health Service hospital. The river serves as a recreation hot spot for many members of the community during the summer months and raw river water is used by Tribal members in ceremonial and traditional practices, despite awareness of water contamination [5]. Results of prior work have shown that microbial water contamination issues are of great concern during spring and summer months, when the river experiences the most recreational activity by community members [6, 7]. There is a general worry on the Reservation about how the Little Bighorn will and has been affected by climate change. Tribal Elders have noticed changes in distribution of fish, flooding, the worst local fire season in memory, milder winters, hotter summers, declining winter snowfall, and earlier snowpack recession [8]. In 2011, a flood on the Little Bighorn caused a wastewater lagoon in Lodge Grass, a small town upstream of Crow Agency, to wash into the River, leading to immediate contamination. Home water wells were flooded, leading to an increase from the 40% of previously coliform contaminated wells [9]. After recent flooding events, locals have feared that they would become flood refugees, but due to low snowfall in the recent winters, there has been an anxiety of water shortage during summer months. Current literature suggests that there is little known about how microorganisms attach to suspended sediment in water, their survival and transport when attached, and how projected changes in the climate will affect these microorganisms and waterborne disease. Extreme flooding, increased air and water temperature, intense precipitation and runoff, prolonged and intense drought, and increased water demand are probable events that will degrade freshwater quality due to climate change [10]. These events can lead to increased sediment and pollutant (nitrogen, phosphorus) loads, decreased water flows in low precipitation months, and abrupt increased water flows in times of unusually high precipitation. Outbreaks of waterborne disease have been documented after increased flows due to rapid snowmelt and unusually high and low precipitation [11]. Considering the recent environmental changes seen on the Reservation, the cultural importance of the River, direct interaction between community members and the River, and microbial pollution of the water, a unique research study will be produced.