CMS River Watch program propels students to the top of water quality testing
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To learn more about Norm Yoast’s River Watch class at Craig Middle School, visit mryoast.weebly.com/river-watch.html.
“We overdo it because, as you can imagine, a lot of people over the years have said, ‘Well, it’s nice they’re learning something, but there’s no way their data can be as good as ours.’ And we’ve proven over and over with people like Norm (Yoast) that that’s not the case.”
— Barb Horn, Colorado Parks and Wildlife water resource specialist, about testing results from River Watch programs, including one taught by Craig Middle School teacher Norm Yoast
Students can test river water in a class exercise, but they can’t produce the same reliable results as experts, right?
Wrong, said Barb Horn, a Colorado Parks and Wildlife water resource specialist.
More than 20 years ago, she helped kick start River Watch, a program that recruits school children and teachers to gather and analyze data from state rivers.
Since then, one school has stood out for producing consistently accurate results.
“Year after year, their data comes out clean,” Horn said about Norm Yoast’s eighth-grade River Watch class at Craig Middle School.
On Tuesday morning, students in the elective class were analyzing water samples and writing their culminating reports.
Fourteen-year-old Spencer Turner swirled liquid in a flask Tuesday morning, pausing occasionally to examine it closely.
He was testing a sample, turned pink by a buffer called EBT, to determine the water’s hardness — that is, its concentration of minerals, primarily calcium and magnesium.
Nearby, Connor Knez, also 14, was using a method called titration to test another sample for its oxygen content.
“Every year, they test in the top 5 percent of all the organizations that do this,” including Trout Unlimited and Colorado School of Mines, Yoast said before class Tuesday.
This year, quality assurance and quality control tests showed his students had only a 1-percent variance range, he said, which is significant, considering Parks and Wildlife employees can have up to a 10-percent variance range when they’re tested for certification.
The data his students collect from the Yampa River, Fortification Creek, Williams Fork and other rivers goes to state agencies, including the Water Quality Control Commission, Horn said, which decides the maximum thresholds for river pollution in Colorado.
Because decisions about water quality can sometimes prove controversial, reliable data is crucial.
As a result, River Watch students’ methods are rigorously tested to ensure their results are accurate, Horn said.
“We overdo it because, as you can imagine, a lot of people over the years have said, ‘Well, it’s nice they’re learning something, but there’s no way their data can be as good as ours,’” she said. “And we’ve proven over and over with people like Norm that that’s not the case.”
River Watch has its roots in chemistry, but it also nudges CMS students to explore larger concepts, like water usage farther downstream.
“We talk about how our water is used and how the Colorado River really doesn’t make it to the ocean anymore,” Yoast said.
Class conversations sometimes edge into debates about river ecosystems.
“We always have a very spirited debate on native versus non-native fish in the Yampa River,” he said. “They do a lot of research, and they get pretty fired up sometimes about what they think should be there and how it should be managed."
However, it wasn’t the emotion-laden discussions that attracted Knez to the program.
He and his family often go floating down the Yampa River, and recreation gradually gave way to curiosity.
He applied for River Watch “just to learn something new about water quality,” he said.
In some cases, the interest doesn’t stop in the classroom.
Yoast has watched former River Watch students pursue college educations in water quality or water chemistry, he said.
“(River Watch) was kind of that thing that turned them on to science, and it gave them a purpose and a direction they wanted to go,” he said.
To him, these after-graduation success stories are proof the program works.
“It makes you feel really good that they’re seeing the importance of it, because there is a finite amount of water that we have,” he said.