Use of Total Station Spawns Improvements in Salmon Monitoring Program

A 3.837Mb PDF of this article as it appeared in the magazine—complete with images—is available by clicking HERE

Think surveying equipment and it’s not likely that an organization working to ensure the survival of the Pacific Northwest’s salmon population comes to mind. Yet that is precisely what’s currently taking place throughout the region, as members of the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission (CRITFC), working as part of the Columbia Habitat Monitoring Program (CHaMP), are using total station technology to help monitor, measure and document changes in habitat critical to the survival of the seriously endangered species. The approach replaces traditional "stick and tape" survey techniques and has dramatically improved both the efficiency and accuracy of the effort. When complete, it is hoped that efforts to restore traditional salmon habitat that’s been altered or destroyed altogether, will have been successful enough to lead to a regional repopulation of this iconic fish.

Development’s Dark Side
There’s little denying that the Pacific Northwest’s robust economy has been one to which most areas would aspire. Home to some of the nation’s largest and most progressive corporations (Boeing, Microsoft, Intel,, Starbucks, etc.), the region has seen unbridled development, boasting more than $1 trillion in gross regional product in 2013. Population growth is reflected in that development: the state of Washington alone saw a 13 percent population increase in its last census; Oregon’s 2010 population was 12 percent higher than in 2000. All that growth, however, has come at a price. When land is cleared, dams constructed, streams and rivers diverted to accommodate the steady influx of new residents to the area, delicate ecological balances can be impacted. According to Casey Justice, aquatic habitat scientist for CRITFC, the region’s salmon population has been one of the most critically affected, leading to the CHaMP effort.

"The salmon habitat in general has been very degraded over the years–the direct result of human-related activities," he said. "Those include diverting water for agriculture, timber harvesting, clearing streamside vegetation for cattle grazing, construction of levees, and more. Salmon need a good deal of habitat complexity to survive and grow, but that complexity has been greatly reduced over time. As part of the CHaMP program, we’re monitoring the response to restoration actions that have already been implemented by a number of different agencies. The Oregon Department of Fish & Wildlife, the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation and other tribal agencies, the National Forest Service as well as a variety of other consulting firms and federal agencies have all made efforts designed to help alleviate the problem."

Habitat From Humanity
By way of example, Justice says the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation is heading up restoration actions that include adding elements of large woody debris to the stream. These structures increase habitat complexity by allowing water to scour out pools where the fish can survive. Additional projects involve the removal of levees, and efforts to increase the sinuosity of the channels, essentially restoring them to more of their natural meandering state.

"Because juvenile salmon often rear in side channels where they are protected from high water flows, restoration work also includes digging out such channels," said Justice. "Other actions involve planting trees along the riparian corridor to increase shading of the water. Water temperatures that exceed 77°F can be lethal to salmon, so restoring natural cover to minimize exposure to high temperatures is vital to salmon recovery."

He adds that one of the key CHaMP efforts involves surveying the current habitat conditions in 26 watersheds across the Columbia River basin, then later resurveying the same sites and monitoring how things have changed.

"Our team is responsible for roughly a 20-mile stretch of Catherine Creek and a 30-mile stretch of the Upper Grande Ronde River upstream of the cities of Union and LaGrande, Oregon," Justice said. "The salmon populations are severely depleted in these streams, so we feel a real sense of commitment to what we are doing."

Movin’ On Up
The CHaMP program centers around surveying various elements of the habitat as it currently exists, generating topographic maps of the stream channel, and monitoring how the habitat changes over time. As mentioned, a good deal of that work was originally done using basic, traditional techniques.

Frustrated with those shortcomings and realizing the scope of what lay ahead for them–potentially another nine years of work–CHaMP representatives contacted Shane Aldrich from the Salt Lake City branch of Rocky Mountain Transit and Laser to discuss alternatives and were soon taking delivery of 15 Topcon DS 205AC total stations.

Point and Shoot
CHaMP crews generally consist of a team of three or four: the total station operator, one or two rod men and one member who measures auxiliary habitat data. The team tackles a particular section of their assigned watershed, first establishing benchmarks, then surveying about a quarter mile of stream per day.

"The goal of the survey effort is to essentially create a three dimensional map of the channel," said Justice. "At present, Nancy Platt has been running the total station for us and Jake Beavis is our rod man. Walking through the stream, he selects key points–the water’s edge, the deepest point in the channel, any bars or islands, the tops or toes of the banks–and Nancy shoots the point. When the day is done, we will have shot anywhere from 800 to 1300 points which will serve as the basis for a decent three dimensional representation of that section of stream."

A good portion of the team’s survey work involves shots into heavily brush-covered areas, which could prove problematic for more advanced technology such as GPS or more time consuming for the traditional stick and tape approach. It is, however, ideal for total station work, given ease with which the technology thrives in heavily wooded environments. Platt said she really appreciates the user friendliness of the DS 205AC and the functionality of the MAGNET Field software.

The Full Picture
The Auxiliary Habitat Data Crew mentioned above includes Danielle Horne, working with biologist and crew leader Monica Blanchard. They are charged with, among other tasks: channel classification, monitoring of fish cover, substrate composition, distribution and embeddedness, solar input and water temperature, stream discharge, water chemistry, and site-level human influence.

"All of these are critical to determining how much of a positive impact is being realized," said Blanchard. "For example, substrate size composition is a key component, given that too much fine sediment can be detrimental to salmon egg survival. We also measure and quantify how much large woody debris is in the stream, the amount riparian vegetation cover in place, and the site’s deep pools, and riffles. Between our data and that of the survey crew, it is a nice snapshot of the watershed as it exists today."

The real value of the work they do, however, is found in the comparison between current and previous surveys. And that, said Justice, underscores the valuable role the Topcon DS 205AC is playing for CHaMP.

"We are able to gather a huge amount of highly-precise information, then come back to this same spot, tie in to
the same benchmarks and evaluate how things have changed: whether there are more pools, if they got deeper etc. In the past, not only was the data lacking much of that precision, it was very hard to quantify the changes that had occurred. This is a huge advantage for us and for the success of the program overall."

Larry Trojak is a communications writer for his own firm, Trojak Communications, in the town of Ham Lake, Minnesota. He is a frequent contributor to The American Surveyor.

A 3.837Mb PDF of this article as it appeared in the magazine—complete with images—is available by clicking HERE