Waterways project brings science to life at every grade
Rivers flow west through this giant valley, pushing past a patchwork of cities, landowners and counties that lay claim to them. Dams divert them. Droughts eat away at them. Trash and invasive plants clog them.
But the greatest danger of all to these once-mighty waterways may be the waning interest of the people bustling by them.
The San Joaquin River was named America’s second-most endangered river for 2016 by the nonprofit American Rivers. “The river is so over-tapped that it runs completely dry in stretches, threatening water quality, endangering fish and wildlife, and creating uncertainty for farmers,” notes the announcement.
Clocked at 325,000 cubic feet per second in 1914 by state engineers, the San Joaquin River’s flow today tops out in an average May at 214 cfs, according to U.S. Geological Survey measurements at Vernalis.
It took more than a century of development to threaten the rivers of the San Joaquin Valley, and it will take at least a generation to save them, river advocates believe. To make it happen, local nonprofits have joined forces to develop what is believed to be unique in the nation, an every-grade project around the science, economics and enjoyment of area rivers.
We want these students to understand the value of water, the need for water. They are the next decision-makers, the next stewards of this resource. Meg Gonzalez, Tuolumne River Trust
“Science needs a common thread, and why not use water? In this area, it’s the lifeblood of our community,” said Meg Gonzalez of the Tuolumne River Trust.
Gonzalez pitched the idea, partnering with the Great Valley Museum at Modesto Junior College, the Modesto-based National Ag Science Center, Foothill Horizons Outdoor School, the Stanislaus County Office of Education, the East Stanislaus Resource Conservation District and River Partners.
The project got the green light last summer with a two-year, $91,000 U.S. Environmental Protection Agency grant that covers about half the cost of what is believed to be a first-of-its-kind, K-12 water literacy program. Hughson Unified stepped up to pilot the program.
650 The number of gallons of water it takes to produce the beef, fixings and bun for one hamburger
“This was an amazing opportunity for our students. We were honored to be selected for a K-12 project, especially since Hughson is so close to the Tuolumne River,” said Brenda Smith, assistant superintendent. Smith worked with Gonzalez to arrange the class visits and field trips for each grade at Hughson schools.
Kindergartners and first-graders get lessons from the MJC natural history museum’s traveling teachers. Second-graders get to tour the museum exhibits. Third-graders see a local bird sanctuary. Fourth-graders go to a wetland habitat in Ceres.
500 The number of gallons of water it takes to produce one pair of jeans
Fifth-graders walk along a riverbed and dissect fish in Waterford. And on it goes, to mountain streams in sixth grade, scientific experiments in a mobile lab in seventh and eighth grades, and restoring riparian habitat in high school.
“With our goal of having our students college and career ready when they graduate, we have worked to offer our students hands-on experiences whenever possible. We felt that this pathway would be a great fit to educate our students about our local environment,” Smith said via email.
Gonzalez checked in with teachers before the program began in January to see if what she proposed fit with what they needed taught. This summer, she will be checking back in with them to see what worked and what needs tweaking.
35 The number of gallons of water it takes to produce one cup of coffee
“We need to evaluate the program,” she said. “We need to show how these programs are doing. They are progressive. There should be carryover knowledge.”
Each year as students progress to the next set of lessons, she hopes to see them start out knowing more and ask better questions along the way. In theory, these new experiences will make an impression, linking academics to a day they won’t forget.
“Every student is learning at the river, and that’s what we want,” Gonzalez said.
Other districts are now looking at the program, weighing the cost of busing to field trips against the benefits of providing nature experiences many of their students, especially low-income students, will not have had.
The San Joaquin River starts near Thousand Island Lake in the Sierra Nevada. Over the next roughly 400 miles – west past Fresno, north past Stockton – it is fed by the Merced, Stanislaus and Tuolumne rivers, and slides out to the sea under the Golden Gate Bridge.
Each Hughson class did a quiz before and after its Waterways activities to see how much the students learned. Few had ever been to a river before. Fewer still knew where the river water came from or where it was going, or that the dirt at the bottom is the least dangerous thing that might be in it.
Those kids still have a ways to go to navigate the water pressures they will inherit. Their understanding of the drought is that their lawn died, while irrigation districts and city taps and tiny fish all fight for the same, evaporating drops.
“People and environment – when are we out of balance?” Gonzalez asked. “We’re all having to figure it out,” she said, pointing out farms using more strategic flooding and micro-irrigation, dairies recycling water.
“We want these students to understand the value of water, the need for water,” she said, “They are the next decision-makers, the next stewards of this resource.”