Blaine High School students study their local watershed, tour salmon stream as part of Young Water Stewards

July 12, 2017

The Sustainable Schools and Clean Water programs at RE Sources for Sustainable Communities joined forces in 2016 to launch Young Water Stewards for high school students in rural Whatcom County, helping them develop an understanding of their local watersheds and how to be a steward of clean water.

This spring, almost 200 high school students from Blaine participated in the Young Water Stewards training. Students learned how watersheds function through an interactive watershed model, learned how to conduct water quality testing, toured their local watershed to learn about different types of pollution, learned tips for how to protect the health of their local watershed, and took part in a stewardship project.

Field notes from the North Sound Baykeeper

By Lee First, North Sound Baykeeper

Spending 5 full days — with 7 classes per day — with Blaine High School students during the last week of their school year was not something I knew how to prepare for. I know a lot about the watersheds and pollution issues in Whatcom County — but working with 200 students during the last week of school? I let our Sustainable Schools staff figure out the details, and went along for the ride.

We started the Young Water Stewards program by asking each student to fill out survey telling us what they knew about watersheds, and asking them to draw a watershed. Almost all of them drew a small building, sometimes next to water or with a tap. After a quick discussion about what a watershed ACTUALLY is, we split each class into two groups. Half of them stayed inside to listen to a presentation on watersheds, and other other half headed outside to build a watershed model.

We built our watershed model with wadded up newspaper and a blue tarp plus plastic cars, homes, barns, factories, and animals. We crumpled up the newspaper in a pile, covered it with the blue tarp, then scattered the plastic pieces around the tarp to resemble farms and cities. Then, the fun part! We handed out containers of dirt, food coloring, glitter, and chocolate sprinkles, representing sediment, chemicals, heavy metals, and bacteria, respectively. After the stuff was tossed about, we sprayed our model with water.

This model is an effective way to showcase a watershed, especially in Whatcom County. The students were aware that most of the water in the Nooksack River starts from snow melt on glaciers on Mount Baker. But what they didn’t know was that the watershed where they lived was not part of the Nooksack watershed – it’s part of the Drayton Harbor watershed, and their subwatershed is Cain Creek. Most of them didn’t know that water carried pollutants from the land along with it.

It was a hot day, and the water bottles were a hit. Water sprayed on the high point turned into tributaries, slowing down in areas that represented wetlands. The chocolate sprinkles and glitter flowed downstream, some farm animals got their feet wet, and a lot of sprinkles, dirt and glitter (aka pollution) ended up downstream.

Touring Cain Creek

The next day, we toured Cain Creek, a local salmon-bearing stream. The students loaded on the school bus, and I was the tour guide. Leaving the city of Blaine, we discussed what kind of pollutants were in stormwater and where the stormwater goes (answer: Cain Creek).

We passed a few farms, talked about problems caused by improper manure management, and stopped the bus near the headwaters of Cain Creek. We discussed the importance of headwater wetlands, the interplay between surface water and groundwater, and alterations of the land that have led to the filling in of wetlands.
On the way back, we stopped at an industrial facility and viewed a large parking lot that drains into a wetland. From this area, Cain Creek heads into giant pipes, crosses under the freeway, pops up a few times, and finally reappears near the Blaine Post Office. Here, we got off the bus, walked to the edge of a steep bank, and peered down into the creek.
It was sad. Garbage was strewn about, the stream was a browning trickle, and two huge storm drains were located right above the creek. The kids were surprised. We’d talked a lot about how stormwater from all the types of land uses we’d seen from the bus ended up in pipes connected to the creek, without any treatment. What they saw opened their eyes. A few were upset by the garbage and the color of the water.

Testing water quality
The next day we showed the kids how to test water for temperature, turbidity, and pH. We found a place to access the creek with a neglected sign that said “Cain Creek – Salmon Stream.”  A few kids noticed the sign and commented that if more people could see it, they might care more about the creek. Right on!
Taking on stewardship of storm drains
The last day we helped the kids with a stewardship project. Since we’d placed a big emphasis on pollution from stormwater, we decided the stewardship project would be to label the 60 storm drains on the Blaine High school campus and some areas of the surround neighborhoods with storm drain markers. In all, we labeled close to 100 storm drains. Another group of students went down to the creek, picked up litter, and cleared vegetation away from the salmon sign for all to see.
The students really got the message: at the end of the week, they understood what a watershed is, what stewardship means, why clean water is important, and some positive steps to prevent pollution. They understood that what we do on the land can have a detrimental impact to water quality downstream. And they learned a few steps they could take right in their own Cain Creek watershed to increase the health of the creek.
In the final survey, the drawings of watersheds were totally different from the first day – they contained glaciers, tributaries, streams, rivers, wetlands, storm drains, parking lots, and more. It was an honor to spend the week with these students and their teachers. We are looking forward to taking this program to many more schools. Thank you, Blaine!