Creating River Stewards: Monitoring Water Quality on Public Lands

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This spring, SYRCL and Tahoe National Forest (TNF) launched a pilot program to engage middle and high school students in water quality monitoring. Funding received from the National Environmental Education Foundation (NEEF) Forest Service Greening STEM Grant allowed Tahoe National Forest and SYRCL to partner and develop this new project, Creating River Stewards: Monitoring Water Quality of Public Lands. Twenty-two 6th through 12th grade students from Downieville Jr./Sr. School participated in the program where they were trained in water quality monitoring practices, collected water quality data at Oregon Creek Day Use Area, analyzed and interpreted the data they collected with SYRCL’s comprehensive River Monitoring Data sets, and learned river etiquette to become River Ambassadors. 

Over the course of the program, SYRCL and TNF staff provided two classroom presentations and brought students to Oregon Creek Day Use Area to collect water quality samples. Students arrived at Oregon Creek Day Use Area excited and ready to apply the skills they learned in the classroom. “It was amazing to see how engaged, focused, and diligent students were when they collected data,” said Monique Streit, River Education Manager. During the field day, students collected water quality samples from two sites at Oregon Creek Day Use Area to monitor air temperature, water temperature, pH, conductivity, turbidity, and dissolved oxygen. Although conducting the dissolved oxygen titration was tedious, it seemed to be everyone’s favorite test. Students made observations as they added different chemicals to the samples that changed the color of the water to amber and then purple. After conducting the titration, they were asked to determine if there was enough dissolved oxygen to support different fish species and macroinvertebrates in the stream. 

As a bonus to the field day, Sierra Newts were spotted swimming and forming newt balls in the Middle Yuba. For many students this was their first time encountering newts and became a huge highlight of the trip. Eloise Bellingham, River Monitoring Coordinator, commented, “It was a special experience that really tied together the field experience. Students were able to learn about river chemistry and see it in action, and on top of that they were able to see how living creatures survive in that same space. It really puts everything into perspective when you realize a river you look at every day has many small, but vitally important moving parts.”  

River Stewards

After returning to the classroom, SYRCL and TNF staff worked with students to analyze the data they collected along with the twenty-one years worth of River Monitoring data from the two sites. Students were asked to conduct statistical analysis to synthesize how water quality has changed over the last twenty years. To share their findings, the class created a short video to discuss their conclusions and ways humans can reduce their impact on streams. They concluded that water temperature, pH, and conductivity numbers are increasing and dissolved oxygen and turbidity are decreasing at the two sites near Oregon Creek Day Use Area. 

Through completion of this project, the majority of participating students believe their personal actions have a significant impact on the water quality of the Yuba River and its tributaries and believe they have the tools needed to make a positive difference on the water quality of their local streams. The project was a great way to engage middle and high school students in citizen science in their own communities. Farrah Masoumi, Social Science Natural Resource Specialist at Tahoe National Forest, stated, “The Creating River Stewards program was an enormous success! Not only did students engage in citizen science, but they left the program with skills to be better stewards of the land and water.” SYRCL and TNF plan to continue to engage high school students in the water quality monitoring project next spring. 

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