Fish Creek, an approximately 25-kilometer-long tributary to Snake River, is located in Teton County in western Wyoming near the town of Wilson. Fish Creek is an important water body because it is used for irrigation, fishing, and recreation and adds scenic value to the Jackson Hole properties it runs through. Public concern about nuisance growths of aquatic plants in Fish Creek has been increasing since the early 2000s. To address these concerns, the U.S. Geological Survey conducted a study in cooperation with the Teton Conservation District to characterize the hydrology, water quality, and biologic communities of Fish Creek during 2007–11.
The hydrology of Fish Creek is strongly affected by groundwater contributions from the area known as the Snake River west bank, which lies east of Fish Creek and west of Snake River. Because of this continuous groundwater discharge to the creek, land-use activities in the west bank area can affect the groundwater quality. Evaluation of nitrate isotopes and dissolved-nitrate concentrations in groundwater during the study indicated that nitrate was entering Fish Creek from groundwater, and that the source of nitrate was commonly a septic/sewage effluent or manure source, or multiple sources, potentially including artificial nitrogen fertilizers, natural soil organic matter, and mixtures of sources.
Concentrations of dissolved nitrate and orthophosphate, which are key nutrients for growth of aquatic plants, generally were low in Fish Creek and occasionally were less than reporting levels (not detected). One potential reason for the low nutrient concentrations is that nutrients were being consumed by aquatic plant life that increases during the summer growing season, as a result of the seasonal increase in temperature and larger number of daylight hours.
Several aspects of Fish Creek’s hydrology contribute to higher productivity and biovolume of aquatic plants in Fish Creek than typically observed in streams of its size in Wyoming. Especially in the winter, the proportionately large, continuous gain of groundwater into Fish Creek in the perennial section keeps most of the creek free of ice. Because sunlight can still reach the streambed in Fish Creek and the water is still flowing, aquatic plants continue to photosynthesize in the winter, albeit at a lower level of productivity. Additionally, the cobble and large gravel substrate in Fish Creek provides excellent attachment points for aquatic plants, and when combined with Fish Creek’s channel stability allows rapid growth of aquatic plants once conditions allow during the spring.
The aquatic plant community of Fish Creek was different than most streams in Wyoming in that it contains many different macrophytes—including macroalgae such as long streamers of Cladophora, aquatic vascular plants, and moss; most other streams in the state contain predominantly algae. From the banks of Fish Creek, the bottom of the stream sometimes appeared to be a solid green carpet. A shift was observed from higher amounts of microalgae in April/May to higher amounts macrophytes in August and October, and differences in the relative abundance of microalgae and macrophytes were statistically significant between seasons.
Differences in dissolved-nitrate concentrations and in the nitrogen-to-phosphorus ratio were significantly different between seasons, as concentrations of dissolved nitrate decreased from April/May to August and October. It is likely that dissolved-nitrate concentrations in Fish Creek were lower in August and October because macrophytes were quickly utilizing the nutrient, and a negative correlation between macro-phytes and nitrate was found.
Macroinvertebrates also were sampled because of their role as indicators of water quality and their documented responses to perturbation such as degradation of water quality and habitat. Statistically significant seasonal differences were noted in the macroinvertebrate community. Taxa richness and relative abundance of Ephemeroptera, Plecoptera, and Trichoptera, which tend to be intolerant of water-quality degradation, decreased from April/May to August; the same time period saw a corresponding increase in Diptera and noninsects, particularly Oligochaeta (worms) that are more tolerant.
Seasonal changes in macroinvertebrate functional feeding groups were significantly different. The relative abundance of gatherer-collector and scraper feeding groups decreased from April/May to August, accompanied by an increase in filterer-collector and shredders feeding groups. Seasonal changes in feeding groups might be due to the seasonal shift in aquatic plant communities, as indicated by comparison with other streams in the area that had fewer aquatic macrophytes than Fish Creek. Statistical tests of macroinvertebrate metrics indicated few differences between years or biological sampling sites on Fish Creek, although the site farthest upstream sometimes was different not only in terms of macroinvertebrates but also in streamflow, water quality, and aquatic plants.
Potential effects of contributions of additional nutrients to the Fish Creek ecosystem beyond the conditions sampled during the study period are not known. However, because virtually all of the detectable dissolved nitrate commonly was consumed by aquatic plants in August (leaving dissolved nitrate less than the reporting level in water samples), it is possible that increased nutrient contributions could cause increased growth of aquatic plants. Additional long-term monitoring of the stream, with concurrent data analysis and interpretation would be needed to determine the effects of additional nutrients on the aquatic plant community and on higher levels of the food chain.