Tribe, USGS unite on water quality study

L’ANSE – The U.S. Geological Survey has agreed to undertake a four-year water quality study of the Yellow Dog and Salmon Trout rivers watersheds at the request of the Keweenaw Bay Indian Community.

“Surface water and groundwater associated with these local drainage systems support many ecologically diverse habitats,” said KBIC Tribal Chairman Warren Swartz in a news release. “Today, mineral exploration drilling, the construction and operation of a large industrial facility, the construction and enhancement of roads, a significant increase of heavy truck traffic, all in close proximity to tributary streams and wetlands of the Yellow Dog Plains, have created the potential for the introduction and migration of contaminates into this water-rich area.

“These activities may diminish the inherent value of the Community’s 1842 Treaty rights and put the health and welfare of the public in jeopardy for generations to come.”

The Rio Tinto Eagle Mine is located on the Yellow Dog Plains. Several roads are being improved for mine truck traffic. Production is expected to begin in late 2014.

Rio Tinto announced last year it would indirectly fund a community environmental monitoring program of its mining, milling and transportation activities by the Superior Watershed Partnership.

Much of that water and air testing compares new independent results with those previously gathered by Rio Tinto. The USGS water monitoring on the plains would be new testing conducted from 2013-2016, with a report summarizing the results due to the tribe in 2017.

A formal request for USGS water monitoring was made by the tribe in March 2012. After agreeing on the scope of work to be performed, a USGS joint funding agreement was authorized by the KBIC Tribal Council last month.

The Huron Mountain Club has agreed to assist with funding and the Yellow Dog Watershed Preserve of Big Bay was instrumental in developing the program. That group has been collecting water quality information on the Yellow Dog Plains since 2002.

Swartz said the tribe contacted the federal agency because it was concerned about adverse ecosystem impacts. He said the USGS is “widely considered the nation’s premiere science agency.”

“The USGS Michigan Water Science Center agreed to conduct a baseline water quality investigation of the Yellow Dog Plains,” Swartz said. “The USGS and Keweenaw Bay Indian Community have conducted cooperative investigations of water resources in and near the reservation for many years.”

Swartz said since 2001, the agency and the tribe have operated a network of continuous record stream gauges and water quality monitors. The network has grown from one site in 2001 to six currently.

Swartz said discussions with the USGS about a potential cooperative water quality study of the Yellow Dog Plains began in the summer of 2011.

John Pepin can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 206.