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Planting Contextual Seeds

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Thirteenth annual water festival

It was a gloriously bright and clear couple days for early summer in North Idaho, birds chirping, squirrels jumping, and children milling around with flecks of new educational stimulation dancing about in their young eyes. The adults, too, though they may have heard the messages before, seem to have been stepping lighter, smiling more, as if the very presence of children learning can make all the difference in the world.

The 12th annual Pend Oreille Water Festival took place at the Riley Creek Campground in Laclede on May 18 and 19. Nearly 500 fifth grade students participate in the festival, which brings resource professionals and high school student guides together in an outdoor, applied, educational setting on the banks of the Pend Oreille River. The objective of the Water Festival hinges upon the importance of educating the populace about our region’s water resources, beginning with the children, stewards of water management in the future.

The students travel with their high school guides through five different educational stations at the campground, each lasting 30 minutes. There are over 20 groups of students from 12 schools throughout Bonner County. Topics at those stations include learning activities about native fish and their habitat needs, water quality indicators, water and other resources utilized by the Lewis and Clark expedition, watersheds and runoff, as well as the birds, animals, and people who depend on clean and plentiful water throughout the three-state Clark Fork-Pend Oreille watershed.

"I think it went really well," says Jenni Post, Water Festival coordinator. "From the in-class presentations to the festival itself, planting these conceptual seeds is an excellent way to help kids learn about natural resources in their area and how to conserve them."

The five stations, as mentioned above, deal with water resource and habitat issues. The water quality station provides a hands-on experience for the students, with samples of both poor and good water. By looking at which aquatic insects live in the water, the students glean a glimpse of one indicator of water quality.

The Lewis and Clark station features costumed instructors "in character" to illustrate when Lewis and Clark were looking for the Northwest Passage, a water path that goes across to the Pacific Ocean. The students are asked to identify what materials they will need to get across, and what challenges they would have from the perspective of the explorers.

The fisheries station is a fun one, where the students get to learn all about fish species that reside in our region, with emphasis on the native bull trout and their primary prey, the kokanee salmon. The students then play a game, where they are asked to attempt a "spawning run." Most of the students are salmon, but a few are predators, demonstrating the reproductive cycle of the fish and challenges of survival.

The focal point of the watershed station is an "Enviroscape model," a fiberglass representation of a community, complete with roads, a farm, forested areas, houses, a construction site, factory, water treatment plant, golf course, and of course, rivers running into a lake. The model simulates the impacts of runoff to water quality, indicating that everyone in a watershed has an impact upon it. The students are asked to come up with ways to conserve and protect clean water.

The final station, that of the animal tracks, highlights life-size stamps made from real animal tracks. The students choose from a variety of tracks and learn about identification through the tracks themselves, but also about each animal’s bounding pattern and location. The importance of habitat and clean water for animals is emphasized. Each student makes a scarf with the tracks they choose, so that they may keep it as a reminder and a souvenir.

"All of the students just clue right in," says Post. "The different aspects of a watershed, how it affects animals, and how we’re all connected and have to keep our water clean because we all depend on it so completely."

Science students from Sandpoint High School also help teach the fifth graders about macroinvertebrates, or "bugs in the water" that are one indicator of good or poor water quality. The Sandpoint High School ecology teacher, John Hastings, was instrumental in continuing the high school students participation in the Water Festival.

"The fifth-grade teachers always love the festival because of its organization and the top notch instruction," says Diane Williams, executive director for the Tri-State Water Quality Council. "The biggest challenge for us in organizing is mostly coordinating with the buses and students’ schedules each morning of the Festival."

Another component of the Water Festival is in-class presentations before the festival takes place, where the fifth-grade students learn about watershed concepts through the eyes of a traveling water drop, illustrating all the ways that water is used in our culture. A large hand-painted map of the region helps the students to see that "water doesn’t recognize geographical boundaries," says Williams.

In addition, there is an educational trunk that rotates through the classrooms, which provides a historical, interactive journey through time and place in the Clark Fork-Pend Oreille watershed. The trunk was created 14 years ago by an educational subcommittee of the Tri-State Water Quality Council.

The Tri-State Water Quality Council has organized the Water Festival since its birth, in conjunction with the Bonner Soil and Water Conservation District, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. In addition, many local businesses contribute to the festival with in-kind support and cash donations.

The Council has been working since 1993 to improve and protect water resources in the 16 million-acre Clark Fork-Pend Oreille watershed that spreads from northwestern Montana, through north Idaho, and across the northeastern corner of Washington.

Over 80 volunteers assist with set-up, instruction, and operation of the Water Festival, including representatives from the Idaho Department of Fish and Game, the U.S. Forest Service (Sandpoint Ranger Station), the Bonner and Boundary Soil and Water Conservation Districts, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Idaho Association of Soil Conservation Districts, the Pend Oreille Basin Commission, the Coeur d’Alene Tribe, Riley Creek Lumber, as well as other area businesses and organizations.

In addition to financial support, Riley Creek Lumber president Marc Brinkmeyer was kind enough to provide a forklift and operator, Tim Emerald, who assisted mightily in the set-up and take-down of the event. Kind acts such as this "underscore the spirit of the festival," says Williams. "Our community is so supportive of this event."

Participating schools from Bonner County include: Farmin/Stidwell, Priest Lake, Sagle, Washington, Carden Academy, Hope, Idaho Hill, Kootenai, Northside, Priest River, Southside, and the Waldorf School.

"The students were awesome this year! They were very well behaved, asked great questions, and were able to relate non-point source pollution to having impacts on our watersheds," says Rebecca Stevens, environmental specialist for the Coeur d’Alene Tribe’s Lake Management Department and water festival volunteer. Stevens estimates that she has run the Enviroscape model approximately 120 times over the years!

When asked what her favorite part of the festival was this year, Stevens responded that she really enjoys working with the variety of colleagues in the natural resource field, as many of them savor the opportunity to work with children on these important conservation issues. "Whether we know it or not," Stevens says, "there is a little bit of an educator in all of us."

Kate Wilson is a project journalist with Avista’s Clark Fork Project. She’s been interested in environmental issues since she was a youngster.

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Kate Wilson Kate Wilson was a Project Journalist for Avista's Clark Fork Project. She has been interested in environmental issues since she was a youngster.

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