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Educator Takes the Classroom to the Creek

Educator Takes the Classroom to the Creek

A Day With the Deer Creek Blue Thumb Volunteers

 Blue Thumb Education Coordinator Kim Shaw shows Anna Knight a stone fly that was seined from the kick sample Anna helped perform.  The presence of this sensitive species indicates good water quality.  All of the students noted that from the look of the creek they thought that might not be the case.

Blue Thumb Education Coordinator Kim Shaw shows Anna Knight a stone fly that was seined from the kick sample Anna helped perform. The presence of this sensitive species indicates good water quality. All of the students noted that from the look of the creek they thought that might not be the case.

 

Environmental Science teacher Debbie Adams fixes the oxygen in a sample of water she collected in Oklahoma County’s Deer Creek.  She will take the sample back to the class room and her students will help her test the oxygen levels as part of this project for class.  This creek is on the 303d list but if the levels of contaminants continue to improve, this creek could be delisted.

Environmental Science teacher Debbie Adams fixes the oxygen in a sample of water she collected in Oklahoma County’s Deer Creek. She will take the sample back to the class room and her students will help her test the oxygen levels as part of this project for class. This creek is on the 303d list but if the levels of contaminants continue to improve, this creek could be delisted.

“’Dead animals in stream’ I get to circle, I don’t get to circle that very often.  Overall it does not look bad though, my bubbles look good.  Trash pshhh,” says Debbie Adams.  Because this portion of Deer Creek is in close proximity to subdivisions but still has a rural landscape, a lot of trash ends up pitched over the bridge abutments and down into the stream.  Adams says you won’t see common trash.  Adams is the Environmental Science teacher at Deer Creek High School.

Anna Knight asks, “Did a car come through here?”  Anna is only in the environmental science class because she had heard chemistry was too hard and she didn’t want to take her class at the technical college anymore.  Her classmate Graham Rawls holds up a break drum as Anna is noticing the abundance of car parts that are lying around in the stream bed.  Mrs. Adams says Anna’s attitude is fairly common among her students; her class is the class students take when they don’t want to take any other science class.  She is working to change that perception.

Alex Holland answers Anna’s question by saying, “You never know in a rural area a farmer could have just had an old truck on his place and with a good flood just washed down here.”  Alex is one of the three students who showed up to help with sampling and plans on being a meteorologist one day.  While the requirement for Mrs. Adams class is to participate in the data sample collecting process at least once, this is Alex’s second trip.  This is the kind of interactive learning Mrs. Adams can’t replicate in her classroom.  It’s one thing to talk about the environment, it is a whole other to amble like mountain goats over the rock riprap holding the stream bank in place to see the debris that people carelessly discard and measure the nitrogen in the water and hypothesize that it ran off the wheat field nearby. Mrs. Adams says, “Is that watercress growing here?  I would be so happy to see that watercress grows here.”  Volunteering to test water quality with the Oklahoma Conservation Commission Blue Thumb Program is a perfect activity for her class.

Kim Shaw is a Blue Thumb Education Coordinator for the Oklahoma Conservation Commission (OCC).  As a part of OCC’s Blue Thumb Program team, she educates Oklahoma’s small army of volunteers on how and why they should sample.  The students are getting an added value to the samples they would normally gather because Shaw is helping them collect an invertebrate sample.  She tells the students, “Sometimes people think that putting old tires on the stream bank helps protect the stream bank, which, it doesn’t.  That’s part of the problem, people just aren’t educated about different aspects (of conservation).”

For Graham Rawls, who is in Mrs. Adams class twice a day, there is no other place to be.  He isn’t sure what part of environmental science he is interested in, he just knows he wants to be part of the solution.  He listens intently as Shaw talks about the method she is using to sample the invertebrates in this stream.  Shaw tells the students, “The whole purpose is to see what larval forms of bugs are in the creek.  Some are really sensitive to pollution and to find those in the creek, the water is pretty decent because they need quality water to survive.  If we only find leeches and snails and worms, they can pretty much live anywhere that means the water quality probably isn’t very good.” 

The sample they usually gather tells about the conditions at one spot in the creek.  Gathering bugs and fish gives a broader perspective of what is going on over time.  As they examine the sample they find a stone fly, a hellgrammite, a dragon fly and a lot of worms.  Shaw tells them they have all three aspects of sensitivity with these invertebrates which means the creek is doing pretty well despite the rotting dear carcass on the far bank and the junk, which includes a basketball goal, people have dumped there.  Shaw points out that what was defined as ‘pristine’ even five years ago has significantly changed.

Mrs. Adams mentions that when they did an E. coli count and tested coliforms, the results were encouraging.  She says, “It’s not unhealthy, it’s just ugly.”  This is good news for this creek that is one of hundreds listed on Oklahoma’s 303d list, or list of streams that are too polluted or otherwise degraded to meet state water quality standards.  This is one of those lists that is easier to get onto than off of.  It is a process that depends, in part, on volunteers like Mrs. Adams and her environmental science class taking frequent samples under a regimented procedure to determine, over time, the health of the stream.   In the Deer Creek area of Oklahoma County, the pollutants the students can see are only the beginning of factors that could contribute to impairment in the stream.  There is a waste treatment facility, urban sprawl and several agriculturally purposed acreages that surround the watershed within two miles in any direction.   

While it is difficult to judge how well Oklahoma is doing in improving water quality by looking at the numbers of streams or stream-miles that are impaired and comparing that with other states, it is very telling that program managers from other states are calling OCC Water Quality Director Shanon Phillips to find out the nature of Oklahoma’s NPS Management Program success.  The EPA has ranked Oklahoma in the top five states for improving water quality. 

While it is one component in the process, OCC Water Quality Assistant Director Greg Kloxin credits the Natural Resources Conservation Service and other partners providing the financial and technical assistance through delivery of the Farm Bill Programs. In return the agencies can see whether the programs work toward their intended purpose.  Kloxin emphasizes that producers and landowners in the state who have voluntarily implemented the practices that help to improve water quality, complete the necessary partnership.  He says, “This state has aggressive water quality standards, aggressive land management practices addressing nonpoint source pollution and an aggressive monitoring program.  I think we’ve had some visionary people when it comes to recognizing the importance of water quality and the development of programs and the ultimate evidence of that is whether or not we are removing streams from the list through restoration.”

Kloxin says the Blue Thumb Program also helps volunteers compile a summary report of their monitoring data which becomes a sign post of water quality through time.  He says the kind of sampling they use empowers volunteers, who are the local influence, to make strong arguments to the people who can do something about the pollution through politics.  Mrs. Adams says that aspect brings added value to her class.  She tells her students they are going to be the voting public and are going to have these issues that need informed choices.  She feels that if she reaches just one student that she has done her job.

Kim Shaw puts it to them like this, “Surface water does go into ground water and we have to protect all of our water.  Less than 1% is fresh water and available for us to drink with.  We have to preserve that water so we can live.”

This experience has Graham telling his friends, “A lot of people underestimate (pollution) and don’t think it’s really all that good and if they just throw away a couple of things, it won’t hurt the environment but it builds up over time – a lot and people really underestimate that.  Recycling one plastic bottle can do a whole lot more than throwing it in the landfill.”

By Public Affairs Specialist Crystal Young
NRCS March 2011

Last Modified: 04/21/2011

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