Students take lead on river issues at Youth Water Summit
If the future will be drier and warmer and more arid due to climate change, students of the Roaring Fork Valley may be the ones dealing with it. And, after the second annual Healthy Rivers Youth Water Summit wrapped up in Carbondale Thursday, it’s clear a lot of students are already thinking about conservation.
The day-long conference featured student presentations, discussion periods where students talked to each other and the adults in attendance, and speakers including Christa Sadler, author of recent book “The Colorado” about nine eras of human interaction with the Colorado River.
The Pitkin County Healthy Rivers and Streams Program hired Sarah Johnson with Wild Rose Education to organize the event. Johnson began coordinating with teachers last spring to get the students to think about projects. During the fall, Johnson went to the schools to work with the students on the projects and teach basic river science.
“I facilitate a process where the kids get to understand that the things they care about are important,” Johnson said in an interview. “It’s not about what teachers care about, it’s about what students care about. What they care about and are curious to know more about, they can research, and form an opinion that’s based in evidence.”
Sixth-graders at Glenwood Springs Middle School visited Mitchell Creek Fish Hatchery to collect samples of insects that live on or near the water, some of which are extremely sensitive to water pollution. The students found about seven species of macroinvertebrates, but the most common was the stonefly, which is extremely sensitive to pollutants and cannot survive in dirty water.
GSMS uses the Expeditionary Learning model. Researching river health through macroinvertebrates helped students get outside the classroom and learning about an important topic.
“I think it was really fun to be outside and do something active. I think that hands-on activities are more important than others,” GSMS sixth-grader Max Mazur said.
The students concluded in their presentation that the river was healthy, but as student presenter Damien Christie said in the presentation, macroinvertebrates “can help us understand our rivers and ecosystems, they can show us that the environment is changing, and they can help us monitor climate change.”
“My favorite part was definitely standing up there and teaching people about macroinvertebrates,” Anika Backofen, also a sixth-grader GSMS, said of the project.
After the presentation, event moderator April Long, Clean River Program Manager for Aspen, said that she just hired a research group for $30,000 to study macroinvertebrates. “Next time, I’ll just hire you guys,” she said.
“We brought students from each grade level here. We found kids that are passionate about rivers, and also kids that have taken it upon themselves to do a project around the river,” outdoor education teacher Rob Buirgy said.
The GSMS sixth grade does a river expedition, and students who get excited about something they find can suggest a research project for the river summit.
A group of seventh-graders at GSMS studied how restaurants affect the Colorado River, and the eighth-graders made a video about climate change.
Coal Ridge High School juniors Aidan Boyd and Erin Flaherty presented an overview of the arguments for and against developing the South Canyon area near Glenwood Springs. They sampled the water of the creek and found dangerously high levels of E. coli and potentially harmful alkalinity.
Various proposals for South Canyon development include incorporating the natural hot springs into a resort and providing camping amenities, boosting tourism and allowing for the river to be cleaned up. But other groups wish the land to remain as open space.
“I thought it was very surprising how split Glenwood was,” Flaherty said.
The summit brought together students from Coal Ridge, Glenwood Springs High School, GSMS, Aspen High School, and Carbondale Middle School. But the event was not just for middle and high school students.
Through EcoFlight, a conservation advocacy group that organizes flights throughout the West to examine watershed areas from above, students from Colorado Mountain College, Colorado State University, Colorado Mesa University, Adams State University and Western Colorado University shared perspectives from a three-day trip.
During the trip, the students met with farmers and local officials, Native American groups, and conservationists, organized by EcoFlight program coordinator Michael Gorman.
“They got a well-rounded look at water law,” Jane Pargiter, conservation director for EcoFlight, said in an interview. “We are conservationists, but we really want them to be educated by the fabulous speakers.”
Jonathan Williams, who studies environmental policy at CSU, found himself ready to step into an advocacy role after the three-day trip.
He was familiar with the Colorado River area after years as a river guide, but after “seeing it from above, and talking to the communities, in relatively quick succession,” Williams said he found that all the pieces came together and were pushing him to pursue conservancy.
“The mission of EcoFlight, at least for me, worked,” Williams said.
CMC photography major Sarah Cherry said the trip gave her a concrete basis for pursuing conservation through art. “You can see the problem and see the changes,” Cherry said of getting a view of the river from the air.
broadening the conversation
The thrust of the Youth Water Summit was to connect students and young adults to river issues, but the message was not one of strict conservation. The discussions ranged from what local politicians can do to improve water use to how community members and students can advocate for river health.
“It would be great to promote an ethic of being involved in protection or restoration of a resource before it gets to the point that it is impacted,” said Long, of Aspen’s Clean River Program. “With water, I think that we are already, in the West, very aware that we are threatened. Or at least, we should be.”
One potential shortcoming with events like the water summit and programs like EcoFlight, one audience member pointed out, is that participants tend to already be interested in environmental causes.
“I have a lot of friends who come from ranching families. Sometimes they see things differently, and sometimes we agree,” said Andrew Soliday, a CMC student and landscape painter who grew up near Ruedi. “But as young people, we are talking about it.”