By Tom Schlichter
Regular readers of our Sea Eagle Blog know how good it makes us feel to see people having a great time in any of our inflatable kayaks. The only thing better, from our point of view, is when our products double as a way of improving the world in which we live. That’s exactly why we’re so intrigued by the work of Richard Storey and his use of the Sea Eagle 330, our lightest, most portable kayak. Weighing just 26 pounds, it’s rugged, holds two people or 500 lbs., and is easily carried and paddled by a single person.
“Those are the parameters that make it so valuable to my efforts on the lakes of Pokhara Valley, Nepal,” says Storey. “I’m a freshwater ecologist, and most of my work in the past had centered on the water quality and invertebrates (insects, snails, crustaceans, etc.) of streams and rivers. I’ve done studies on the basic ecology of these creatures, but also, more practically, on how people can use them along with other measures of water quality, and the surrounding physical habitat, to assess the health of specific streams and rivers.”
In recent years, Storey, 51, worked for a government research institute providing science mostly for water resource managers, but he’s also developed some tools for “citizen scientists” (farmers, school groups, environmental care groups) to monitor their own streams. Most of his effort took place in his native New Zealand, but his work and education have also taken him to faraway places.
“I did my graduate studies at University of Toronto in Canada, and after that worked for two years with a conservation group called A Rocha in Lebanon,” reveals Storey. “Now I’m working in Nepal, a country in South Asia nestled between China and India. It’s a beautiful place, lying along the southern slopes of the Himalayan Mountains. Catching the monsoon rains coming up from India, it has some amazing lakes.”
Arriving in Nepal about two-and-a-half years ago, his wife and two kids in tow, Storey had been invited to help start a new university, but his plans changed a bit with arrival of the Covid-19 pandemic and he ended up joining Kathmandu University as a postdoctoral fellow. “Things have worked out quite well, overall,” says Storey. “I live in a town called Pokhara, in a beautiful valley below the Annapurna mountain range, which has some peaks topping out at over 8,000 meters. There are nine lakes in the valley, the largest being 1,000-acre Phewa Lake, which is a big tourist attraction for Nepal, and also a source of fish for many local residents. An amazing number of flora and fauna make their home in and around these waters,” continues Storey, “including over 40 species of water birds, and possibly two species of otter. The high biodiversity and other natural values here are widely recognized, and protected under the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands of International Importance.”
Although the lakes are highly valuable to their surrounding communities and are protected to a degree by the government, they are all slowly degrading due to silt washing down from the hillsides, excess nutrients coming from expanding urban areas, and various other human disturbances, explains the ecologist. Wise use and good management of the lakes really needs to start with monitoring of the water quality, he states, which provides baseline data from which resource managers can come to a better understanding of how healthy each lake is, and whether it’s getting better or worse.
“Unfortunately, water quality monitoring takes a lot of time and resources, which our local institutions don’t have,” points out Storey. “That makes it unlikely there will ever be a more traditional type of lake monitoring system administered here, which is why I’ve focused on developing a system that uses satellite images of the lakes to monitor their water quality. Once the software is up and running, it should be easy for water resource managers to check the water quality of any lake in our survey. But to start with, we need lots of water quality measurements from each lake to match up with the photos. The end goal is to be able to convert the information in satellite photos to estimates of water quality, based on field measurements we’ve matched to them, to get a better feel for the health of the waters being studied both now and in the future.”
To that end, Storey visits seven local lakes once every 10 – 15 days to collect water samples. The timing matches with when the Copernicus Sentinel 2 satellite passes over Nepal, which is once every five days. “We mainly measure water clarity, total suspended solids, water temperature and chlorophyll-a (a measure of how much algae are in the water.)” clarifies Storey. “These are things we can match directly with the satellite photos, and they relate to the main environmental pressures on the lakes such as silt from the hillsides turning the water brown, nutrients turning the lakes green with algae, and climate change raising the water temperature.”
Storey says he and his Masters student are halfway through the water sample collection at this point. They have samples from spring and monsoon season but still need to collect post-monsoon and winter samples. After that, they will match-up the corresponding satellite photos and build equations that can calculate suspended solids, temperature and chlorophyll from future satellite photos. “Sadly, the data we’ve gathered so far shows the lakes are becoming browner (more silt), greener (more algae), and warmer than they were a few years ago – but we expect to get more precise than that with our modelling.”
According to Storey, his Sea Eagle 330 has been a big help with this project. “It’s lightweight and small enough to fit into a backpack I can wear while I’m riding my scooter,” he said. “It’s also super-easy to inflate. From the time I arrive at a lake, I can be on the water in under 10 minutes – and it’s just as fast to pack up after I get back to shore. I have seven lakes to visit each day in the field, with a total travelling distance of over 50 km, and I can do that (just barely) using my scooter and Sea Eagle kayak. The only thing that slows me down is that every time I unpack it, local people gather around, ask lots of questions, and sometimes want to go for a paddle in my boat! It’s fun to chat, and occasionally I take kids for a ride, but I also have to keep moving.”
Storey adds that the Sea Eagle 330 sports a great design, noting the open floor features of the Sea Eagle’s inflatable I-beam construction and has plenty of space for his gear. He also appreciates that it is exceptionally stable on the water, so there’s no risk of losing any equipment overboard. Built for two, the 11’ 2” vessel has plenty of room for an assistant when needed. “So far it’s holding up well,” he concludes.
When this project is finished, Storey hopes to leave the people of Nepal with a tool that can be easily used to check water quality on the lakes surveyed to see if they are improving or getting worse over time. With that kind of reliable scientific knowledge, he believes, they should be able to make better decisions about how to care for the lakes. “Once we’ve developed this tool for the local lakes in Pokhara Valley, I hope we can extend it to monitor Nepal’s high-altitude lakes. Those are very sensitive to climate change, and they are also difficult to reach for traditional water monitoring. This tool could be especially useful for monitoring how they are coping with a fast-changing environment.”
With a lot of hard work, and a little luck, Storey thinks he can have all the loose ends wrapped-up within a few months. “I’d love to stay longer,” he reveals. “My family and I really enjoy it here, and our kids are picking up the language which makes it even more fun. That said, my daughter is nearly ready for high school, so we’d like to head back home by the end of 2023. By then, the lake monitoring system should be finished, but I may have to hand over some other projects.”
Currently, Storey is looking for corporate sponsors to help the water quality program continue to grow, and to start new projects such as using eDNA to see if otters still exist around the lakes. “With a small amount of funding we would be able to collect many more samples, involve local students who could develop these studies further, communicate our findings to government and local residents, and extend the program to other lakes in Nepal. For the people of the region, and its vibrant lakes, a little bit of backing for these projects could make a meaningful positive difference down the line.”
All photos courtesy of Richard Storey ©.