Tugging on boots, gloves and goggles, a group of teenagers wades into a creek just downstream from a wastewater treatment plant. This is not some strange initiation rite into a secret society. Instead, these kids are helping protect one of Missouri's most valuable resources. These kids are card-carrying (laminated, of course) members of Stream Team #432, from Reeds Spring High School.
This year, the 15 juniors and seniors who are members of the team will test the waters of Railey Creek in Stone County at five locations each month. For their past efforts, the team, which was formed in 1993, was one of three Missouri high schools honored with the 2002 Stream Team Achievement Award from the Missouri Department of Conservation.
The students from Reeds Spring High School are among 46,000 volunteers statewide who participate in Stream Team projects. Being a stream team member is a good way to participate in the protection and enhancement of Missouri's waterways.
"The work that Stream Teams perform is vital in improving the quality of Missouri's streams," said Tim Rielly, who coordinates volunteer water monitoring for the Missouri Department of Conservation.
"Having those eyes and ears out there really makes a big difference," Rielly said. "They discover problems, and then we go out there. They really add value to our efforts to protect our streams."
"They also change mindsets," Rielly said. "Future generations may think more before they litter and about what goes into their streams."
The Reeds Spring program, led by science teachers Tonya Lewis and Mike Collins, has certainly succeeded in instilling conservation values. Of 104 juniors and seniors who have been Stream Team members over the past 10 years, 69 are now studying or working in an environmentally related field. Among those former students is Amber Spohn. Now a 20-year-old sophomore at the University of Missouri in Columbia, Spohn is pursuing a degree in hydrology, a field closely related to water quality.
"I want to work with water quality for the rest of my life," Spohn said. "The Stream Team had a huge, huge impact on my life. It laid the building stones for my entire life."
Spohn credits Collins, Lewis and her mother for her commitment.
"They created my passion for water quality," Spohn said. "I was raised by my mother to know there was something out there that was pristine before me, and that we could work to keep it pristine. Someone has to step forward and say we're going to help out."
At the University of Missouri, Spohn organized a new Stream Team and plans to revive two other campus teams.
Last year, Spohn devoted more than 400 hours to working with the Stream Team and the school's "R Project." The unique recycling project turns 75 percent of the food and paper waste from the 2,200-student Columbia school district into compost that's bagged and sold at the local Wal-Mart.
For her efforts, Spohn was named last year as Youth Conservationist of the Year by the Conservation Federation of Missouri. Spohn also was among the students who traveled last year to Washington D.C. to accept the President's Environmental Youth Award for the recycling project, one of 10 projects honored.
Stream Team members also develop important life skills, including teamwork, organization and public speaking. Although participation earns them an elective class credit, their work usually takes place before and after school, and on weekends. Activities include an annual float trip and camping expedition designed to heighten their appreciation of natural resources.
For monitoring water, they are guided by a detailed notebook provided by the Missouri Department of Conservation. It includes chapters on safety, trespassing and environmental laws. Students are trained to monitor the biology of a creek by recording observations of macroinvertebrates, such as dragonfly larvae and snails.
"This is another way to indicate the health of a stream," Lewis said. "If all they find is leeches," Lewis said, "you know right away that the stream has a problem."
After collecting water samples, students return to the school's laboratory to conduct tests for eight other indicators of stream health: fecal coliform, pH, dissolved oxygen, ammonia, nitrates, phosphates, living organisms and clarity. If they find levels of fecal coliform that exceed safety levels specified by the Missouri Department of Natural Resources, they alert officials from the local health department and the DNR.
The information collected by the students over nearly 10 years now comprises a database that will enable future generations to track the creek's health or decline, Lewis said.
Besides monitoring streams, Stream Team students also monitor water quality issues in the Missouri legislature. Each year, they travel to Jefferson City to have breakfast with local legislators, and then they go to the Capitol to lobby legislators sponsoring bills of interest. Sometimes, working with the legislators has been an eye-opener, Lewis said.
"A lot of these students are of voting age, or close to it, so this is a real-life learning experience," Lewis said. "We don't tell them what to think, but we want them to think."
The students also have wielded their political weight on local issues. In 2002, Columbia-based APAC Missouri Inc. was permitted by the Department of Natural Resources to set up a temporary concrete batch plant near the school to supply concrete for a highway project. Area residents were concerned that the operation could harm water quality because the plant would be located close to a sinkhole called Yocum Pond. The students negotiated with the DNR and APAC and were given permission to monitor water quality in the sinkhole.
"Well-informed kids are a very persuasive tool," Rielly said. Chris Schwedtmann, APAC's director of environmental health, called it a "win-win" situation.
"The community was willing to work with our company and the school district to find a workable solution from both ends," Schwedtmann said.
During the summer, the students tested weekly for pH and dissolved oxygen levels in the sinkhole. Each time the levels rose above DNR standards, the student alerted APAC's staff who adjusted operations to regain compliance.
"The Yocum Pond area today is just beautiful," Collins said. "What we emphasize is that we're not teaching them to be environmental activists. We're teaching them to be active environmentalists."
Since its inception in 1993, the Stream Team program now has 2,395 teams statewide. These range from one-person teams to the virtual army that annually removes trash from the entire 40-mile length of the Jacks Fork River. Some teams mobilize entire communities and employ the aid of other agencies, including the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
The Stream Teams concept grew from the 1988 Rivers and Streams Conference sponsored by the Missouri Department of Conservation and the Conservation Federation of Missouri. There, more than 600 people set goals for education, stewardship and public advocacy. One goal was finding public and private resources to implement solutions across jurisdictional lines.
In 1991, a second conference added the sponsorship of the Missouri Department of Natural Resources. This pooled the resources of two influential agencies.
"There's just a huge interest in streams and water resources in this state," Rielly said. "Missourians are really genuinely attached to their streams for a variety of reasons: recreation, economics, aesthetics, or they're just curious. And people want to do something to help.With this program, they can do it to whatever level of comfort they have."
It may be difficult to measure the program's direct impact on state water quality, but judging by the awards the program has received, somebody certainly believes it is making a difference. Missouri's Stream Team program has won more than 50 national and state awards, including recognition from the U.S. Department of the Interior and the Environmental Protection Agency. Those on the front lines are eager to testify about the program's value.
The notebook on water monitoring provided by the Department of Conservation contains quotes from early conservationist Aldo Leopold who said, "Everything's connected to everything else."
The dedicated science teachers at Reeds Spring High School relish watching students as they begin to understand that concept.
"When they come in the door, and they're excited about science, it's easy to teach," Collins said. "They're like little sponges willing to soak it up."
Amber Spohn, who is barely out of her teens, has taken her concept of connection far beyond her local swimming hole.
"Not only do I hope my passion transfers to the younger generations and to other people," Spohn said, "I hope it spreads throughout the United States and eventually throughout the world."
For information on establishing a team, call (800) 781-1989 or go online.
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