Thursday, November 17, 2016

BLOG: A Day in the Life of a Consulting Geologist

by Karen Griffin, Vice President, Olsson Associates

It is 6:30 a.m. and today I’m off to Riverton, Wyoming, to attend the annual conference for Conservation Districts. This is the first time I’ve been to this conference, and I’m excited to see some of the clients we’ve been working with and return to the only state in the country with a cowboy on its license plate. My mention of the cowboy will become abundantly clear as I describe one day on a recent trip to Wyoming. It was one of the most memorable days I’ve ever had as a consulting geologist.

For the past year and a half, we have been working on a watershed study for the Wyoming Water Development Commission (WWDC) and the Teton Conservation District (TCD) in Jackson, Wyoming. Yes, the study area includes the Grand Tetons, Bridger-Teton National Forest, portions of Yellowstone National Park and the entire National Elk Refuge. The watershed is 1.7 million acres of land in the center of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, the largest intact ecosystem in the lower 48 – not to mention it includes one of the country’s most iconic mountain ranges. One that takes your breath away each and every time you see it.

The Grand Tetons at Grand Teton National Park
As I’ve headed out west to complete the project, I’ve had a lot of volunteers who wanted to join the project team. Who wouldn’t want to go to Jackson Hole every two months to see the seasons change across the amazing landscape?! And, luckily for us all, the scope of the project is almost as vast as the landscape and so I have been able to bring out several of our best scientists and engineers to help complete the project.

The team visiting Jenny Lake after meeting with the National Park Service at Grand Teton National Park. From left to right, Joan Darling, PhD (our wetlands and permitting expert), me, Jodee Pring (River Basin Planning Supervisor for the WWDC), and Brian Degen, PE (our irrigation engineer).
We were hired by the WWDC and the TCD to complete a Level I watershed study. A Level I watershed study is holistic evaluation of an area that is interconnected by water. The study evaluates the current condition of an area and looks at opportunities for water improvement projects that will restore, maintain, and enhance healthy watershed function. Specifically, a Level I watershed study looks for projects, programs, or activities that support sustainable, beneficial water use for current and future watershed residents – be they human, animal, or plant.

To learn the issues facing the water users in the district, we held public meetings in the town of Jackson and in the small community of Moran near the south entrance to Yellowstone. At the meetings, we heard from ranchers, land managers, wildlife conservationists, and the urban and rural residents about their issues with both drought and flooding. The summer of 2016 was no exception with dry conditions causing three major fires in the watershed. You may have heard about the Berry Fire that was reported on the national news because it closed the southern entrance to Yellowstone for several weeks. Conversely, in the winter, ice jams form in Flat Creek and they block the water flow through Jackson causing winter flooding in the residential and commercial parts of town. Water issues not only affect tourism and the urban residents; we heard from many of the local ranchers about the need to upgrade the irrigation systems that supply water to the green pastures that feed both livestock and wildlife across the watershed.

The greatest thing about these Level I watershed studies is that we start the project by completing a description and inventory of the watershed.  At the same time, we hold public meetings and go out to see the issues first hand. So the project team gets to see the big picture of the watershed as a whole by developing a series of GIS maps that document, for example, the geology, soils, land use, wetlands and sensitive habitats. And we also get to go see “the boulder that destroyed the headgate on our irrigation canal.” We then put together conceptual plans and cost estimates for the water improvements identified by the residents and stewards of the land.

Here is a prime example of the irrigation system improvement needs in the Upper Snake River Watershed. The Jensen Creek diversion used to provide water to several ranches just south of the Teton Village ski resort. The irrigation structure was crushed by a gigantic boulder during a debris flow. We prepared a conceptual plan and cost estimate for a replacement structure downstream this site.
That gigantic boulder was a pretty amazing thing to see, but the day I wanted to tell you about started at a public meeting at Fire Station #4 in Moran. We held a public meeting to find out what types of water improvement projects were needed in the northern part of the watershed. Several local ranchers came to hear what the study was about and realized that the issues they had with deteriorating and inefficient irrigation systems may be eligible for funding through the WWDC Small Water Project Program. Mort Yoakum, manager of the historic Pinto Ranch, invited me to come visit the ranch the next day. Before he left he asked me one question: “Do you know how to ride a horse?” 

I met him at the ranch headquarters the next morning where we loaded up two horses to ride across the pastures that needed irrigation system improvements. As we rode across the ranch, Mort told me the story of how the ranch was homesteaded and how at one time ran 2,000 head of cattle across this area. He showed me the flood irrigation ditches that crisscross the landscape. Some ditches were dug over 100 years ago, and we talked about some options that could be proposed to help improve water delivery, while improving water conservation. I asked him why he didn’t use ATVs to get around the ranch like so many ranchers do these days. He explained the ditches were too wide and deep in places for the ATVs to cross but the horses can jump across them easily. Next thing you know, he led us across a ditch and, yes, my horse easily leapt across without hesitating!

Mort Yoakum, manager of the Pinto Ranch takes me across their allotment on the Elk Ranch located in the northeast corner of Grand Teton National Park. The Tetons were covered in a haze that day because the Berry Fire was burning at the entrance to Yellowstone.
With that, I’ll leave you with my favorite picture of Mort, pointing to the main irrigation ditch as he described where he needed the water to feed his cattle, the antelope, and the heard of over 800 wild buffalo that share the natural resources of this area. 

Sunrise on the Elk Ranch at Grand Teton National Park discussing more efficient ways to deliver water to the cattle and wildlife that depend on this most precious resource. Yep, those are my horse’s ears in the foreground; we had a fantastic ride that morning.
Some days I wonder how I could be so lucky to have a job where I get to try to help folks find ways to conserve and protect this most precise resource – the interconnected groundwater and surface water that define this watershed. Especially when it means taking a ride across this iconic landscape with a rancher who is trying to maintain the legacy of a historic ranch while at the same time, preserving the natural resources that nourish a part of the greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.


About the Author
Karen Griffin is a professional geologist managing multidisciplinary projects focused in the fields of geology and hydrogeology.  She began her career in environmental geology in Santa Barbara, CA and moved to Boulder, CO to take a position as project manager for the restoration and cleanup of a 27 square mile superfund site called the Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge. She moved back to her home town in 2004 and is currently a Vice President and the Groundwater Technical Leader for Olsson Associates in Lincoln, Nebraska. Reach her at

1 comment:

Bruce M Devitt said...

One of the greatest threats to groundwater is the very out of date and just completely wrong storm water management systems employed by civil engineers. The earth replaces groundwater by the absorption of rainwater through the ground. This system is completely destroyed not only buy urban storm water management but also rural drainage schemes.
ie: The water that falls upon the earth and wound be absorbed by the ground MUST !