Vandalism & Chance: A Sonde Story

November 20, 2014

Last week I ventured out to the Central Platte with Mikes-squared (that’s both Mike Forsberg and Mike Farrell) and a film crew. What started out as a pretty normal 15 degree day ended with a peculiar appearance of an orange buoy, dancing in a field, and Forsberg sprawled out in a drainage pipe.

To further explain this day, let’s go back to April of 2013.

It was my first month of data collection and I had just returned to the office after installing water quality sondes in the Platte. One sonde has multiple sensors within the instrument and remains in the river, protected by PVC, chained and locked in place, and I was nervous. Each costs more than my car, required careful calibration, cleaning, attention- they were basically my children and I was a new mom. Then I got a call.

Mikes-squared at the start of a normal day. Photo by Emma Brinley Buckley.

It was an engineering company, contracted by the Platte River Recovery Implementation Program (PRRIP), that had identical sondes (with different sensors) installed at one of the same locations as my equipment. They called to let me know that they went to check their equipment and instead found two chains dangling short and equipmentless. “Expect a call from the sheriff.”

A multi-parameter water quality sonde inside a PVC case. Photo by Emma Brinley Buckley.

PVC and buoy chained and locked in place.Photo by Emma Brinley Buckley.

When the phone rang the sheriff and I spoke for a couple of minutes before he asked me if I was from Nebraska. Actually, I believe his exact words were, “You’re not from around here, are you?” “No, sir.”

“Well, around here whiskey is for drinking and water is for fighting.”

This Mark Twain quote in tangible context made me realize how valuable, meaningful, and provoking a resource like the Platte River is (I also asked my adviser if the quote could be the title of my thesis but he didn’t seem impressed).

The sheriff alluded to the water-use controversy between government agencies or programs, such as PRRIP, and landowners, suggesting whoever vandalized the water quality sonde more than likely assumed it was a piece of government equipment. We concluded it was probably long gone, thrown into the river and sunk beneath the sand or lost in the many braided channels. I couldn’t stop thinking about it being stuck in riprap or how deep it might be buried, but what frustrated me the most was I would never really know what had happened to it. I searched anyway- driving up and down the river roads with binoculars (I probably looked pretty suspicious), hopefully walking public land, and kayaking the shallow river.


Fast forward to last week.

I almost didn’t go on the trip due to an overload of work, but who could pass up a day of learning and exploring with the Mikes? We had just finished scouting and filming on an eastern stretch of the central Platte and were heading west toward a restored slough on a county road, dirt kicking up on the car as we rumbled over bumps and grooves on a path carved through corn stubble and cows. I was mid-sentence when I saw a flash of orange from the corner of my eye.

The small culvert next to the road. Photo by Emma Brinley Buckley.

My first thought: weird, a random orange thing. My second thought: that’s my buoy. “THAT’S MY BUOY!” I screamed to the Mikes, a startling assertion I don’t think either of them understood. “Wait, no really, can we stop the car?” I ran out into the field, more ecstatic that I found the buoy, less realizing that it was in the middle of a corn field, out of reach from a flood plain — why was there a buoy in a corn field? I walked back trying to hold in my building excitement, but then another orange glint stole my attention. Using my phone as a flashlight, I peered into a small drainage pipe underneath the road.

 Mike Forsberg crawling into the culvert to save the day. Photo by Emma Brinley Buckley.

There sat the remainder of the equipment, nonchalant, inconspicuous. I couldn’t contain my excitement anymore and a happy dance ensued in the middle of the field. During my dance, Forsberg managed to crawl half way into the drainage pipe and extract the equipment from the frozen mud that had accumulated for a year and a half.

What are the chances that a year and a half later I would find equipment that I had spent hours searching for and even longer thinking about? What if I didn’t go out that day? What if I had blinked at that one second driving by the orange buoy?

Unfortunately, the sensors have been out of water for so long and caked with dirt that the possibility of them working is pretty much zero. I suspect the company that made the sondes can salvage some parts from the equipment, but with no benefit to the project. Even though the outcome isn’t great, finding the missing equipment gave me a sense of relief or at least a feeling of closure knowing a little more of the story.

The PVC case next to the ditch. Photo by Emma Brinley Buckley.

The sonde didn’t get stuck in the sand or float down river. The ditch was miles upstream of where the equipment was originally installed. Someone had maliciously gone out of the way to get bolt cutters to cut a locked chain, hoist equipment out of the river, steal it, drive it to the dump site, and bury it in a culvert. So much effort for such little reward (and huge consequences if caught).

Me ecstatic & not lying awake at night thinking about missing equipment.

If only they knew what little effect their actions had — minimal to none on the intended victim (the government?), but it did keep a lowly graduate student up at night and make for a crazy story to tell.

The end of a strange but fantastic day. Photo by Emma Brinley Buckley.


PBT team photo. Summer 2023

About PBT

We are a group of storytellers using timelapse photography and multimedia storytelling to explore watersheds. PBT has been in motion since 2011.

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