A Day in the Life: Dam.

Sometimes research doesn’t go as planned. Especially when collecting data in the field. Unlike in a laboratory or computer model, I have very little control over things in nature. I learned this the hard way when I went to go visit my field site this past week and noticed that something about my beaver dam had changed. My first thought was “Dam!” My second thought was “Damn.”

When I say “something about my beaver dam had changed” what I really mean is “large volumes of water from the Rocky Mountain snowpack melting plus runoff from a rainy month of May came rushing down Boulder Creek and blew out the beaver dams I was trying to study.”

This field site was pretty perfect for collecting data. I’d gone through the paperwork filled process of getting a research permit from the county, had mapped out the area, taken soil samples, verified the beavers were present and active, measured the dam, photographed the area extensively and was just about to go install shallow groundwater monitoring wells around the pond. Crossing the stream that was dammed was easy because the water level was only about 1.5 ft deep at the deepest point. To give you an idea of how awesome this site was, I’ll show you some of my pictures of it from before the blowout.

The Main Beaver Dam Before

Main Dam Middle Before 2
A view of the dam from downstream. It wasn’t super tall, but seemed well constructed and the water level was barely a foot deep. Plus with the giant gravel bar it seemed like a pretty safe place to build a dam. Beautiful.
Main Dam Middle Before
A view of the main dam from the far stream bank. Lots of sticks and stones and mud. What an excellent dam to take data on! Perfection.

The Secondary Dam Before

Most Downstream Dam Before
This secondary dam a little downstream of the main dam was cool because the beavers had taken advantage of a couple large fallen trees and added on some smaller sticks and a bunch of mud to seal it up and make another dam. So peaceful. I definitely wanted to compare the data from this dam to the data from the main dam!

Of course, nature had other plans for my field site. Nature said, “Hey Emily, I know you really like these dams and they are perfect for getting all sorts of useful data. And I know you just spent about 30 hours getting all your field equipment put together and sensors tested and calibrated. But I think it’d be best if some snowmelt and rainwater destroyed these dams and made the stream so high that you can’t even access the far banks anymore.” Rude.

So this is what my field site looked like after nature decided not to be cooperative.

The Main Beaver Dam After

Main Dam Middle After
Goodbye beaver dam. You were beautiful while you lasted.

The Secondary Dam After

Most Downstream Dam After 1
The edge of the secondary dam held on, but the raging whitewater in the background is where the main part of it was overwhelmed by high-water. You can tell the water level was ridiculously high and fast because there is a clearly recently alive aspen tree with green leaves snagged upside down on the dam remnants. That kind of out-of-place tree is common in large flood deposits.
Most Downstream Dam After 2
Ah, whitewater rapids. No longer is this secondary dam a location of peaceful trickling water. There was no way for me to cross the stream anymore, or even wade into it very far to get flow measurements.

So much to my disappointment, this field site in its current state is largely unusable for the research questions I wanted to get some data for. And since I am not a cold-hearted, robot scientist only caring about myself, I was also sad to see all the hard work the beavers did get destroyed. I was happy to see, however, that the industrious little beaver family was already hard at work damming up a smaller side channel of the stream and making some mini-ponds and mini-dams to use over the summer.

Beaver Dams: A New Hope

New Dam Strategy
See the raging main channel of the stream on the left? That’s where the beavers used to live. But even when all their work is destroyed they just get back on their feet and fix the problem. In this case, they made a chain of 5 mini-dams along a smaller side channel of the stream (on the right in this picture) and are using those mini-dams to make mini-ponds. If I had the work ethic of a beaver I’d probably be done with my PhD in 2 years instead of 5. I’m simultaneously proud of them and jealous of them.

So I’ll be heading out this week to look for new field sites to answer my existing research questions. I still want to figure out how to get some useful information from the blown out site – maybe when the water level drops a little I can set up my instruments and see how the stream changes while they rebuild their big dams, assuming that’s what they decide to do? Or maybe there is a way to utilize the mini-dams and mini-ponds? I’m not sure yet. The uncontrollable nature of field work definitely keeps things interesting.

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