November 20, 2013

On the Nature of Water: vi) Bug Zone

    The watershed calls and brings us outside, to the places where water runs intermittently. The spring rain brings new pathways down the side of each hill, as surface water replenishment creates different challenges to those of the past winter. In Oregon, we have watershed councils, where interest groups work together to 'manage' the land for the betterment of all. The Partnership for the Umpqua Rivers (PUR) watershed council works by the consensus of its 18 members with the goal of restoring fish passage to the local upstream rivers near the headwaters of the North Umpqua and South Umpqua Rivers.

    Consensus is a tough thing for humans to grip. One player can hold up the entire process, so the caveats are that we stay away from the controversial issues like timber cutting and farm field management where land ownership rights should trump the big picture – we replaced undersized culverts and monitored water quality in the 1990's and 2000's decades. The success of seeing fish in streams that had been cut off by the roadway system for 50 years was the simple joy that served as payment for the work.

    The PUR water quality monitoring program started off as a means of getting volunteers to appreciate the watershed for the context of life that it brings into community. The federal land management agencies – the BLM and USFS – which have many scientists on-board conducting projects that define the management parameters, sponsored a program under the Rural School Funding Act of 2000 that brought an aquatic entomologist to the Umpqua. The local zoo, Wildlife Safari, a drive-through theme park on nearly a hectare of land was the sponsoring location, a place where high school students and general community members were invited to spend in-depth time in … The Bug Zone.

    Crawling insects have a life underwater that spans about a year, before they turn inside themselves and reform as flying insects with a lifespan measured in days. The community of insects in a stream is an indicator of the water quality of that particular stream. If the stream is full of caddisflies and mayflies, then he water is relatively clean, whereas if only beetles and black fly larvae are present, then Houston, we have a problem. These bugs all live under the water and on top of the land – the 'benthic' environment. The idea was to spend five Saturday mornings in May learning about the water and then help the PUR and agencies – federal, state and local – have a clearer understanding of the little picture.

    The total Bug Zone group ran about 25 people – seventeen students from six local high schools signed up, along with seven adult community members. The key members of the group included three PhD's – the entomologist, a retired agricultural extension professor and this chemist, a physicist that should have had two more, a high school teacher and two retired folks – Donna the Bug Lady and Creepy Claude. These two served as conduits – individuals who have lived the life and enjoyed listening to the kids explain what they knew, without having the overburdened educated spin. Real people. Both knew the topics from years of experience – and are good friends in addition to community volunteers. The agencies also allowed their staff scientists to participate. Nancy of the BLM served as the group sponsor and her project to dive the rivers of the Umpqua for population counts could afford the help – trained high-school interns for the next 2-3 years.

    The first day of Bug Zone was introductions and slides of the little buggers in their home environment. The 17 students were mostly freshmen and sophomores – 14 to 16 year olds who needed a ride and parental permissions. There was one senior – Marvin, who didn't care about the science much – he wanted to be able to tie more effective flies, for fishing. The North Umpqua River is some of the best fly fishing space in the world – picturesque and awesome. By teaching younger students, the agencies could train volunteers to help with the monitoring tasks and research projects.

    The support data for each site would include weather and chemistry water quality monitoring – students could specialize in a facet of the work after they had been through the whole concept once.

    The second week was more indoor work, with the introduction to the equipment – the D-frame nets and heavy brushes that would be used to collect the samples in the field. The process involves dressing up in wetsuits and boots and getting into the river, to take eight samples of stream bottom, one foot at a time. One person holds down the net, while the second person sweeps everything that comes off the ground into the net. Depending on how fast the water is flowing, this is considerable work. There is a patchwork grid for where to take the samples, over an 800 yard area, such that no significant damage is done to the bug populations – the process does not return the critters back after they are counted.

    The samples are combined into a 5-gallon bucket for each site, with large rocks and detritus being removed on site – after removal of the bugs which are put back into the bucket. We returned to the zoo – where the magnifiers and lights helped us pour out the samples and collect the bugs with tweezers. Here are weighs of cutting the sample volume down in the lab – but catching the bugs hiding in the sample is very much like seeing the pictures develop in the dots once you stare at them long enough.

    By the third week, the group had paired down to 13 – the guys who were in it because of the girls chose to opt out when they saw the amount of work. The idea that week five would be a filmed demonstration project staged in a stream in a local park away from the zoo, with a group BBQ was enough enticement to keep coherence through the events. A tracking system for evaluating participation was developed to help justify the funding – after all – we were learning the basics of how to teach and learn once again, by taking bright, self-selected high school students and providing them with a focus.

    We all learned how to key out the insects – to count the number of spikes in the tail and the placement of gills and so forth. The sub-groups reported back to the main group and we developed patience while slogging through applications of the sciences the kids had book-learned. Amy, Katie, Marvin and Aurora were awesome in their enthusiasm, the videos of week five might make it to You-Tube someday. We were joined by members of the PUR and selected agency invites and had the youth dressed for action in waders. Great fun was had by all with depthful learning experience in many arenas.

    That summer, nine students collected bugs with Nancy from 13 sites, with Donna and doc leading the picking and sorting and counting project. Over the summer the kids got to counting and the data was submitted to the ARIMS data base. The data check came back at 83% and a few of the kids were disappointed. “We did better than that” said one that knew. Turns out that when the errata sheet came back, the score was up to 96% and the data was found to be good. Five of the kids kept volunteering until they graduated and only two of the original 13 did not choose to go to college.

    The process of immersion – where youth can appreciate learning with their teachers, mentors and friends – is a completely different spin on education value from today's school prison mentality. Allowing the student's interest toward research directed learning provides a sense of fitting in with the scheme of things on a whole bigger picture, not being told that it is there in vague uncertain terms. 
    Oh – one footnote. Two of the kids were diving with Nancy two years hence, when they found a new species of mussel in the South Umpqua River. There is nothing quite like being on the cutting edge to motivate a teenager to seek the good life.

Namaste' Doc 041713

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