This may be one of the most important critters pulled from Burnt Bridge Creek in Clark County Washington in the last half-century. According to the volunteer who helped Ann Smith’s fifth grade class catch it, it’s a wild coho salmon. It wasn’t alone. Sharp eyed students have been spotting these tiny fish for the last couple of months on a shallow gravel reef. A few wild salmon just out of their eggs do not a run make, but if such fish are seen again next year, and the following year, then maybe—just maybe wild salmon once again inhabit an urban stream which has not seen them in a long time. This little guy isn’t the only sign that things are on the upswing for this urban stream. The month before this fish was caught, a much larger trout was seen scurrying out of the way as the class approached to do their work. As the top predators on the aquatic food chain, seeing such a large trout is a great indicator of the overall stream health. They also represent a huge success for local governance and science education at the K-12 level in Clark County Washington.
In 1997 the City of Vancouver’s Water Resource Education center began a project to educate K-12th grade students on how to monitor water quality of the areas streams and wetlands. Partially paid for by the Clark County Department of Environmental Services, the program teaches students and educators how to gather the data needed to assess the health of streams in our area. Sixteen years later, nearly 1000 school children go out on a monthly basis to measure stream health at sites across the county.
Before you dismiss their work as a quaint education project without real world value, let me give you a couple of examples of just what the simple act of monitoring the stream health has accomplished. In past years student monitoring of the fecal coliform levels in Burnt Bridge Creek have helped discover and track down a dangerous sewage leak that threatened not only the health of the creek but any one who touched the creek water as well. This year, it led to the early detection of a new and dangerous invasive species, the New Zealand Mud snail, which now appears to have taken up residence in one small area of the creek. The early detection and reporting has allowed for state agencies to begin to respond before the damaging snails have become embedded in the whole ecosystem. It’s work like that which has created an environment in which a coho salmon hatchling has a shot at making it to adulthood in what otherwise could be a very unhealthy environment.
This year I had the privilege of volunteering with Mrs. Smith’s fifth grade class from Roosevelt elementary school in the Vancouver school district. I led one of four teams as we monitored the health of the creek which produced the tiny salmon pictured above. Two years ago I volunteered with Mr. Nissen’s third grade class as we planted native plants and removed invasive species along the bank of the stream. By doing so, we improved the fish habitat by lowering the temperature and improving the quality of the water. Nissen’s third and fourth grade classes are also responsible for releasing a few coho each fall into the stream. In 2011, there was a sighting of a spawned out carcass. However, the fish above is believed to be the first known instance of successful spawning by returning fish.
Now in fifth grade, students measured the health of the stream itself. They took physical measurements like stream depth and and width, as well as items like water temperature and Ph. They also performed basic chemistry tests, charting the levels of dissolved oxygen, nitrates, and phosphates in the stream. One of the best measures of stream health is to take a good look at what kinds of critters are thriving in the stream itself. Cataloging the macro-invertebrates and other marine life always generates a huge amount of enthusiasm from the students.
In this arena of “macros” the 2012-2013 monitoring season was also a year of firsts. Besides a few fish eggs and now salmon fry, it included the only known stone-fly larvae to be found by any Smith student in the twelve years she has participated in the streams surveys of Burnt Bridge Creek. Stone-fly larvae are highly sensitive to stream health issues, so their presence is another sign that Burnt Bridge Creek is heading in the right direction.
Not that challenges to the health of Burnt Bridge Creek don’t continue to exist. As they do every year, nitrates spiked in our recent warm weather as households use various fertilizers on their lawn. Invasive species are always a threat. The discovery of New Zealand mud snails has the potential to do real harm to an environment which is currently heading in the right direction. It will require a continued effort by qualified government leaders to make sure that we don’t damage these fragile ecosystems which remain under continuous pressure from urban growth and are still recovering from decades of poor management.The Watershed Monitoring Network in Clark County is a great example of the kinds of things which can be accomplished when communities put political ideology aside and work together on the local level to both serve the needs of the community and bring science education to life. The salmon in Burnt Bridge Creek are the fruit which comes from that kind of good work.
In a world in which we need more children to be inspired to pursue careers in science technology, engineering, and math the stream monitoring project does science education the right way. Kids get to make a hands on difference and see year to year changes through their efforts. Over the last three years, I have watched my daughters root for the health of a stream in their back yard. I watched as they and the other students involved themselves deeply in exploring the interconnected web of life which made up the ecosystem of Burnt Bridge Creek. On the walk back to the school we would talk about all sorts of other great science. One student told me about his determination to study physics. He has already applied to participated in the private one way mission to Mars in 2023. He will be 21. I hope he gets to go. If he does, I will be able to say that I helped spark the interest in science which led him to settle on another planet.