Friday, November 22, 2013

Stream Safari

"If you put a child in water, with strange and unfamiliar critters living nearby, the inner scientist emerges.  No stirring necessary.  It does help if the water is warm, the setting stunningly beautiful and the water clean and diverse - in some places calm like a small pond, in others running quick and smooth over rocks and pebbles." 
 -Julia Steed Mawson, former Emeritus Extension Educator, NH EPSCoR Education Consultant

All those ingredients were there - first re-enacted as best as possible, in a Manchester classroom via guided imagery and hands on looking during a "Dishpan Safari" and then later in the field at the Piscataquog River.

The first time I taught a group of students about macro-invertebrates was a very memorable moment because it was my first time discovering them as well.  I was working at a residential outdoor/environmental education center and one of the many classes that I ran was wetland ecology.  My first group was ten 7th graders.  I brought them to the edge of a pond outflow, in the lovely town of Hancock, NH.  We were all hesitant at first, but the minute we found our first caddisfly case we began a serious searching and digging escapade in the detritus without hesitation.  We had found a plethora of life in that outflow over the course of the fall, examining the creatures with magnifying glasses, poking and prodding the dragonfly nymphs to open their enormous jaws, and watching the backswimmers frantically swirling about in their makeshift home, a plastic tupperware tub.  Most all the creatures survived, as well as my students, some of whom left at the end of the week professional puddle stompers. 

Since that fall, I have taught river ecology to hundreds of middle school students in two different states, 4 different schools, and in many different streams.  I can't get enough!  So, when I joined UNH Cooperative Extension as a Field Specialist in STEM, and found out that I was joining a project with NH EPSCoR focusing on Ecosystems and Society and that there was a pilot program on stream ecology underway, I jumped right in.  "Stream Safari" is a joint project between NH EPSCoR Education Consultant, Julia Steed Mawson, myself, and a 21st Century after-school program at McLaughlin Middle School, in Manchester. Julia had run a 4 day pilot in late July with the Manchester 21st Century Summer Program and it was a great success.  So we jumped in together this fall to begin working with them again with an expanded program, with the intent that we will share it with other after-school organizations.  We are extremely lucky to have middle school social studies teacher, Glenn Bursey, involved in our project as well.  He has taken the reins and led his group of middle school students through the basics of watersheds, stream habitats and stream creature adaptations.

After a couple of weeks of waiting for our background checks to go through, Julia and I were able to join Glenn and his crew of nine students at the Piscataquog River in New Boston, to conduct our first stream sampling, with of course, macro-invertebrates.  The nine students that we worked with came with a diverse background, both culturally and socially.   Some had been to streams before and knew exactly what to expect, some had never stepped foot near a stream.  We provided rubber boots for them to wear, and at first some were very hesitant to wear them, but eventually they all pulled them on.  As soon as we stepped foot into the river, self-consciousness went to the wind.  All nine adolescents were completely engaged, as seen by the tell-tale signs of kids stooped over staring into the running water, some with a cup in hand to get a closer look at the alien creatures that are scurrying about to find a hiding spot, some kids holding rocks with clinging cranefly larva, or desperately dodging a crayfish's quick claws.

Sometimes while doing macro-invertebrate sampling, I find myself so engrossed in searching for creatures that I forget that I am the teacher.  I want to find the next dragonfly nymph that is even bigger and creepier than the last.  But this day, I did remind myself to look up and observe what our group was doing, and, to my delight, I observed all nine kids in waders and rubber boots, bent over, noses nearly touching the water, in search of the next great discovery.  These, are our future scientists.

We have since completed our first 9 week session of Stream Safari with McLaughlin Middle School.  We went to the river one last time to conduct the abiotic field samples, and the day was not as sunny and warm as the first field trip.  Our group was courageous and made great assessments of the river.  I even had one student look up at me in mid-shiver and ask, "Do you think that one day I would make a good Science teacher?"  I nodded and gave him a high five.  

The many lessons we shared with our small group included playing "Oh, dragonfly" an adaptation of "Oh Deer", the favorite Project Wild game, we played in sand while manipulated stream tables, and we also gave out 4-H achievement certificates.  The overall feedback we got from the kids was that they wanted to be out in the field more!  More animals, more rivers, more field-trips!

I have taken that into consideration while revising the curriculum and now have two 12 week sessions to offer, Stream Safari and Wildlife Treks.  Here's to another great session of mucking about.

Posted by Sarah Grosvenor, UNH Cooperative Extension STEM Field Specialist

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Managing stormwater today; a new type of rainy day fund

As we move into November in the Northeast I have begun the ritual preparations for what is directly ahead of us, winter!  The wood is stacked, the oil tank is full, and the outside hoses and spigots stored and turned off.  This is part of life in a cold climate and something that most have done already or plan to do soon to hedge the odds of surviving another winter season with minimal damage.  This type of preparation increases our resiliency to the unpredictability of the season.
In the same way, the towns and cities we live in plan and prepare.  This is part of our culture, our way of life.  But how do we prepare for the unknown and the pressures and challenges of the future?  Is it part of our plan?
In considering this question I am reminded of the old Iroquois tradition as they convened their council meetings.  Prior to the meeting they invoked this declaration:  In our every deliberation we must consider the impact of our decisions on the next seven generations.
For the Iroquois, this inter-generational format of government codified a direct relationship between policy and ecology.   Today we may not give the same consideration to the needs and survival of those who will be in the same positions of authority 150 in the future, but there is a growing understanding that longer-term planning isn’t just good for the environment, it also makes sense economically and for the human safety of the population now and in the future.

In this respect the word “resiliency” is increasingly becoming part of a new planning strategy.  Community resilience can be defined as the degree to which a community is capable of organizing itself to Increase its capacity for learning from past disasters and bouncing back from future disasters[1].  A 2010 report from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration identifies “communities that actively engage in hazard and resiliency planning are less prone to disaster, recover faster from disasters which do occur, and endure less economic hardship than those communities that do not.”[2] Preparedness includes an emphasis on non-structural planning controls such as land use planning and buffer protection, as well as stormwater controls like Low Impact Development (LID).  Together these programmatic approaches constitute a Green Infrastructure (GI) approach to controlling stormwater drainage and pollution in a watershed or municipal setting.
Over the past year the UNH Stormwater Center has been involved in a project funded by the NERRs Science Collaborative focused on getting GI and LID into the DNA of local and watershed wide planning efforts.  In this project we have been working with a team of experts that includes an advisory board comprised of representatives from coastal decision makers throughout the area.  In some of the early meetings the advisory board challenged the project team to define what exactly it would look like in the future when a local community had achieved success.  This was a remarkable challenge and something that I had been thinking about for quite some time, but had never thought to put it into writing.  Over the preceding 6 months we tried to define stormwater planning success and the approach became what we referred to as the “complete community approach” to stormwater management.  The complete community approach is an attempt to blue print just what communities with a focus on resiliency should be doing to prepare for the pressures and challenges of the future.  The approach involves six fundamental and linked efforts that include:
1)      Adopt ordinances and regulations with new development that mandate the use of stormwater filtration and infiltration practices for reducing runoff.
2)      Require improved stormwater controls for reducing runoff with redevelopment or other significant improvements such as repaving or building renovations.
3)      Employ conservation strategies such as protecting naturally vegetated buffers and limiting the size or percentage of allowable impervious area.
4)      Reduce existing impervious area through targeted stormwater retrofits in high impact locations. 
5)      Make a long-term commitment to fund and maintain stormwater controls along with an accounting mechanism to track long-term benefits. Consider innovative funding mechanisms such as impact fees or stormwater utilities.
6)      Provide opportunities for outreach by sharing plans and progress with citizens through community newsletters, cable access, and on-site signs that explain what steps are being taken to protect or improve the community’s waterways.
Fortunately, many communities in the area are already well on their way towards implementing the complete approach.  For those just starting to plan there are some great resources available including model stormwater standards that are available on the Southeast Watershed Alliance’s website:

Implementing these standards in your community can be done with very little effort and will check off items 1 & 2 of the list above.   This is all part of a long-term commitment to more resilient communities. Resilience takes time.  We are not used to planning for what is not right in front of us but what may be 5 or 10 years in the future.  In the wake of extreme weather events, and increased pollution from impervious surfaces that have been causing many problems over the past several years we can at least respond that we are planning for the future when asked the question, are we prepared for the next storm?

[1] Adapted from the Subcommittee on Disaster Reduction. 2005. Grand Challenges for Disaster Resilience. National Science Technology Council, Committee on Environment and Natural Resources. Washington, D.C.: National Science and Technology Council.

[2] National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Coastal Services Center (2010).  Final Research Report: Hazard and Resiliency Planning: Perceived Benefits and Barriers Among Land Use Planners.

James Houle, M.A., CPSWQ., PhD Candidate, Program Manager, The UNH Stormwater Center, Environmental Research Group, Dept of Civil Engineering, University of New Hampshire