Jeff Mabe, an aquatic biologist with the U.S. Forest Service, uses his electrofisher to attract fish so they can be counted by students who stand by with their nets. Village Life photo by Shelly Thorene

News

Watershed wonder: Students wade into environmental lesson

By From page A1 | October 04, 2017

Taking what they learn in the classroom out into the field, last week students from high schools throughout the county converged on the Eldorado National Forest for the 20th watershed educational summit.

Including approximately 60 students from El Dorado, Ponderosa, Oak Ridge, Union Mine and Forest Hill, the four-day program included presentations and training provided by professional scientists, field work at four different sites and camping out under the stars with their peers.

Overseen by Mark Egbert, district manager of the El Dorado County Resource Conservation District, the program in its 20th year is unique in California and was started in this county. The other program like it is held at Lake Tahoe.

This year’s program began Sept. 27 with an opening ceremony complete with a story by a Native American. Then the students were divided into 11 groups with the students from different schools mixed together.

“The first evening they are taught what the protocols are and the first day are shown how to do the testing,” said Egbert. “Then they perform the tests the rest of the week and get proficient in it. They stay with the same group the entire time because the protocols are difficult and quality control is important. In the evening there are more workshops and speakers.”

Serious about what they were doing, the students were scattered along a one- to one-and-a-half mile stretch, or reach, of Jones Fork Creek where they did their sampling in the morning with three samples taken at three different locations.

They sampled and surveyed the watershed of Wench Creek, Jones Fork, Big Silver and the South Fork Rubicon over the course of the program.

Egbert said the water quality group goes out first and does its testing before any of the other groups touch the water. By day three the kids are doing all the tests on their own and the adults observe.

Up and down the river the students were busily at work on Thursday morning.

One group was with three professional foresters as they checked the health of trees and the foresters showed the students how to use some of the tools they use in their trade.

Forester John Quidachay said they were there to teach the students about how trees are extracted and harvested to improve the watershed. Forester Jim Davies pulled out a device called a wedge prism, which is used to determine the number and size of trees in a given area. Meanwhile forester Bob Allen showed the students how to use a borer, which allows one to determine the age of a tree without having to cut it down.

The creek itself was littered with debris on both sides from the winter storms.

In the middle of the creek and on sandbars in the middle of the creek, the students were spaced out at different sites to do their tests.

Egbert said they do their measurements at the same places every year in order to create a consistent record of the health of the watershed.

Using professional testing equipment and tools supplied by the RCD, the students and their advisors tested for water quality, flow/velocity discharge, particle count, trees/vegetation, bugs, stream shading, pool tails, electro-fishing, silviculture and did a general assessment of the physical habitat.

Using all the tools that professionals use, at the water quality site the students conducted tests for water temperature, turbidity, level of phosphates and nitrates in the water and dissolved oxygen. In all they did 10 separate tests at three different locations to determine the health of the water.

Keeping track of the data was Union Mine student Adilene Masopust, 16, who reported turbidity and the level of phosphates and nitrates were all low — a good sign.

Another group did pebble counts with a metal gauge called a “gravelometer” that measures the size of different rocks and pebbles in the river as part of studying channel morphology. Not as goofy as it sounds, Sam McNally, an aquatic technician with the U.S. Forest Service, showed them the technique, noting that different sized gravel can either inhibit or provide a good place for fish and invertebrates to breed.

Another group was straining their eyesight to find micro invertebrates, which they deposited into ice-cube trays for further examination under a mini microscope. The larval stage of different insects, their presence or absence tells a story about the stream.

Amara Smallwood, a board member of RCD and Golden Sierra science teacher, explained they were looking for the larvae of stone flies, mayflies and caddisflies as those are three indicator orders that tell them how healthy the stream is.

“The kids are doing great,” Smallwood said. “They jump right in and want to do work.”

Further up the river was another group looking for fish with Jeff Mabe, an aquatic biologist with the U.S. Forest Service. Outfilled like a ghostbuster with an electrofisher on his back, Mabe said he uses a wand like device that sends a current into the water. The current draws fish toward it and then the kids use nets to capture the fish. Not a lot in the creek, he said. They had only caught a couple of small trout that morning.

An enthusiastic supporter of the program, Egbert said the program was started by a teacher at Oak Ridge after the Cleveland Fire.

“He wanted to learn more about what was going on in his backyard. So he contacted the forest service and they were interested in helping. They brought in RCD to provide the resources to make it happen,” he explained. “It’s been a great partnership between us, the schools and the forest service. We have learned so much. We run into students today who went through the program 15 years ago and still remember it as a great learning experience. Students take textbooks and put it in the field. It’s hands on knowledge.”

Egbert said one of the most important parts of the partnership is it allows them to bring in high level professional talent — teachers, private foresters, a retired hydrologist from the USGS, aquatic biologists with the U.S. Forest Service and even PhD students from UC Davis to give evening lectures on different subjects.

“The students learn the protocols and methodology of collecting data but also how to use it. They get exposed to a lot of different disciplines,” he said. “But the experts also appreciate working with the kids because they learn from them and because the kids are smart. It’s a continuing education for everyone that you can’t get elsewhere.”

It’s also a social opportunity for the youth as they have a chance to interact with students from other schools and to go camping, he added. One young lady confessed she’d only been camping twice in her life — at this year’s educational summit and at last year’s.

The work during the four days of the summit doesn’t end just with compiling the data. It is provided to Forest Service staff, who make their own findings and then return those to the students to evaluate. After passing the data back and forth, the Forest Service staff decide if the watershed is healthy and if there are any management aspects that need to be integrated.

“The summit aspect is really what we’re trying to do,” said Egbert, adding that the program is an example of what can be replicated elsewhere in the state. “Anyone on the state can use this model to get the kids out in the woods and into the watershed.

“It’s a fun and a great educational opportunity,” he added. “I hope we can do this for another 20 years.”

Dawn Hodson

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