Students enrolled in Craig Middle School's RiverWatch class test river water samples last fall. The tests reveal the river's health and teach students about human impact on water systems.

Courtsey photo

Students enrolled in Craig Middle School's RiverWatch class test river water samples last fall. The tests reveal the river's health and teach students about human impact on water systems.

Testing the waters

CMS RiverWatch class teaches environmental awareness, science

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— He came. They tested.

They passed.

A Craig Middle School class that tests the local river water quality recently proved to a representative from the Colorado RiverWatch Program what it could do.

The students' performance on the evaluation ensured the CMS RiverWatch class could continue collecting water samples for state agencies.

The test also proved the students could test the waters with the best of them, CMS science teacher Norm Yoast said.

The Colorado RiverWatch Program, which works with the Colorado Water Conservation District and the Colorado Division of Wildlife, uses school and community volunteers to monitor the health of streams and rivers in the state.

Once a month, the groups collect and test samples from one or more water test sites. The DOW and the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment use the test results to evaluate water quality.

The program provides "a hands-on experience for individuals to understand the value and function of the river ecosystem" and allows participants "to collect quality aquatic ecosystem data over space and time to be used for the Clean Water Act and other water quality decision-making processes," according to the Colorado RiverWatch Web site.

Craig Middle School is one of more than 300 Colorado schools participating in the project. But unlike most schools, participation in the program isn't voluntary.

For students enrolled in the RiverWatch class, it's a requirement, Yoast said.

It's no easy elective, either.

Students collect and test water samples on the third week of the month - including during the summer.

On samples collected from 11 sites on local rivers and streams, including the Yampa River and Fortification Creek, students conduct a battery of tests: alkalinity, dissolved oxygen, heavy metals, nitrates and nitrites.

Students test for these substances and more, using about $10,000 of lab equipment borrowed from the Colorado DOW, Yoast said.

Once a year, the program sends an evaluator to each of its volunteer groups to observe testing practices, he said.

That test came for Yoast's RiverWatch elective class Dec. 17. The evaluator gave the students pretested water samples and then compared the students' results with his own.

His verdict?

Students' test results varied from the evaluator's by no more than one percentile, Yoast said.

"That's great," Yoast said. "I was really proud of them."

In his 16 years teaching the class, both Yoast and his students have benefited from the projects.

Students learn chemistry and how humans impact river systems, Yoast said.

They also learn how to respond to environmental issues occurring locally.

This year, his elective class students are studying a recent proposition to pump water from the Yampa River to the Front Range.

"Kids will look at how (the project) would affect the river and the valley," Yoast said. "It's just one of the ways of making kids aware of water issues in their backyard."

Ultimately, they will write letters to government officials offering their opinion on the issue.

While his students are learning about chemistry and the environment, Yoast has learned a lesson of his own, he said.

That lesson: Don't underestimate a middle school student's science skills.

The tests his students conduct are the same performed by Colorado State University and Colorado School of Mines students.

"Our kids test just as well or better," Yoast said.

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