The Coastal Watershed Council’s commitment to preserve and protect the San Lorenzo River watershed includes providing watershed science education to over 2,500 Santa Cruz County youth annually. Be it a series of classroom visits and field trips, after-school programs, native plant restoration through Youth River Health Days, or summer time river investigation trips with CWC’s community partners, the observations and discussions almost always lead back to one topic: water quality.
As August is National Water Quality Month, it is prime time to share how CWC’s education program uses what many consider the mascot of the watershed, San Lorenzo steelhead trout (Oncorhynchus mykiss), to explore how the quality of San Lorenzo River water helps steelhead thrive. Let’s look at a few Watershed Rangers programs for examples of how CWC helps youth understand the complexity and relevance of water quality in our ecosystem:
Along the banks of the San Lorenzo River, as part of CWC’s We All Live in a Watershed Lesson series, kindergarteners collect and observe the main source of food for steelhead- small bottom-dwelling critters called benthic macro-invertebrates (BMI). Our youngest scientists recognize that if the river was too polluted, San Lorenzo steelhead wouldn’t exist in part because their food couldn’t survive.
The third-grade Watershed Rangers curriculum, Can Steelhead Trout Migrate Here?, focuses on steelhead migration throughout the San Lorenzo River watershed. Youth measure the transparency of the river’s water and its flow as part of their steelhead habitat assessment field trip to the river. They determine that clearer water can help steelhead find more food during their migration.
In fourth grade, Watershed Rangers participating in the Power of Erosion lesson series investigate sources of erosion along the lower San Lorenzo and then use models in the classroom to design erosion reduction methods that would help steelhead thrive. Too much sediment in the water may cover up important steelhead and benthic macro-invertebrate (BMI) habitat.
Within the Biodiversity of a River Ecosystem lesson series, seventh-grade Watershed Rangers study steelhead from a holistic perspective of overall biodiversity within our river system. Through a variety of riverside monitoring practices, including benthic macro-invertebrate (BMI) species composition, water temperature data, percent coverage of vegetation, and pH measurements, it is very clear that high water quality is connected to high biodiversity in the San Lorenzo River ecosystem.
CWC’s Watershed Rangers education curriculum ensures water quality education is utilized and sustained long after we step out of the classroom. As such, CWC’s Education Team is currently developing resources and opportunities for every teacher and every student in every grade we serve (K-8th) to engage in watershed focused civic and eco-action projects. It is one thing to explore a concept such as water quality and its impacts on San Lorenzo steelhead, but it is a much bigger thing when Watershed Rangers students are empowered and equipped to make positive changes for their river community.