DULUTH – The next time you see a measuring stick poking out of a local stream, get your phone out. Scientists are counting on it.

The Duluth-based Natural Resources Research Institute (NRRI) is asking citizens to send text messages with stream levels to help identify trends that could ultimately help protect the city's abundance of waterways.

"We can't monitor these by ourselves, we don't have enough manpower to do that," said Tiffany Sprague, the institute's stormwater research coordinator. "Especially now that we're seeing more frequent large storm events in the fall … we're looking at how streams respond, and what that's going to mean for fish and other organisms that rely on that stream depth."

There are 19 different gauges on 10 area streams and rivers. High water or low, the NRRI asks anyone passing by a gauge to text the ID and the water height to the number found on a nearby sign.

"There's no smartphone required and no skills required — just the ability to read numbers on a ruler," Sprague said. "We see dog walkers as our primary audience."

Since the effort began several years ago, more than 4,000 data points have been gathered by thousands of citizens along popular creeks like Chester, Tischer and Miller. New gauges were recently installed to collect data on several other streams for the first time.

The NRRI will use the data to form models and inform decisions that could affect area streams.

"It helps us as we look through areas where we're seeing development expanding and areas where we're really focused on preserving green space," Sprague said.

Duluth has 43 named streams in city limits, 16 of which are state-designated trout streams, according to the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. Eleven have "water quality impairments for aquatic recreation and/or aquatic life," according to the agency.

While depth is just one measure of many needed to understand the health of a stream and the impact of climate change on local waters, Sprague said the exercise serves another purpose: "We're hoping that it gives people a moment of pause to reflect on what's right here."

Brooks Johnson • 218-491-6496