By: Marissa Markus 

On May 26, 2017, I attended the 4th Grade Water Festival. The water festival is an annual event that has been occurring in Gunnison for over ten years. Throughout the course of the day, students participate in eight workshop stations. They eagerly learn and share their existing knowledge about water in the Gunnison watershed. I am surprised by students’ existing knowledge and their willingness to engage in conversation with station educators. The entire festival was a rewarding experience for students, educators, and observers. I am thankful for all the hard work that goes into organizing such an event and for the role the Upper Gunnison River Water Conservancy District plays in the event.

The Upper Gunnison River Water Conservancy District supplies a hands-on educational stream trailer for their station. Liz With and interns take turns leading the stream trailer curriculum. Liz asks Ashley Cook’s 4th Grade class to share what they know about sediment, erosion, aquifers, ground and surface water, watersheds, riparian areas, run-off, permeability, channelization, and meandering streams. After some discussion, it’s time for students to get their hands dirty and participate in a couple experiments. First, Liz turns the water on to show the differences between channelized and meandering stream systems. Students are entertained as cows, fences, structures, and sediments are pulled into the flow of the channelized system. Students also point out that the water moves more slowly through the meandering system. Then, students separate into groups and are challenged to restore the channelized system and to properly divert water to irrigate an alfalfa field without jeopardizing the meandering stream. Within a short time, the groups work together to create a plan and use the materials provided to achieve their tasks. A student, Maggie, explains how they add vegetation and rocks to help restore the channelized system. Another student explains the irrigation structure they built. While there are some successes and some mistakes, students leave the station with lessons learned and a smile.

Students attend a presentation on agricultural water use and plant dynamics by Eric McPhail with the CSU extension. Eric, with obvious artistic ability, draws the roots, root hairs, trunk, branches, and leaves of a tree. He explains the process of transpiration and uses a plastic straw to help students understand the role of xylem in water transportation. Following a short but informative presentation, it is time for fun. Students split into groups of boys versus girls. Their objective is to mimic water transportation, to move water up through a straw without sucking or blowing directly in the straw. Students take a second straw and blow across the top of the straw placed in the colored water. This creates a difference in pressure that pulls the water up the straw. Then, one student climbs to the top of a ladder and pretends to be a tree. He is a couple feet above a cup of water. He sucks through an elongated straw in order to pull the water all the way up to his leaves. He raises his arms as he successfully takes a sip! A greater appreciation for the hard work of plants and plant systems is developed.

There is also a presentation on fisheries ecosystems by Dan Brauch with Colorado Parks and Wildlife. The students act out the life cycle of a kokanee salmon (Oncorhynchus nerka). Students are selected to either act out the role of a kokanee salmon or the role of a limiting factor. The salmon (students with the assigned role) are released from the hatchery, where they have to travel to Blue Mesa Reservoir, survive for 2-5 years, and then travel upstream to spawn. With limiting factors restricting the number of kokanee salmon that make it back upstream, not many students make it to the end of the course. They frantically run around and most of them have been snatched up by lake trout, which grow to be just about the same size as a 4th grade student. Maybe a little exaggeration there, but it got the point across to the students. Then the number of kokanee salmon is increased, the number of limiting factors like lake trout are reduced, and the life cycle is reenacted. Students more successfully run through the course of the kokanee life cycle. Dan asks students to explain the limiting factors and students provide answers like predation, dams, and anglers. Students then expand on ways to address or manage for the limiting factors of kokanee salmon in our own Blue Mesa Reservoir.

Laura Tomcek with the National Park Service discusses the importance of water conservation at her station. First, she uses a gallon of water to represent all of the water on Earth. She uses a quarter cup to represent the fresh water. Two tablespoons make up the liquid freshwater, and eight drops from a dropper make up all of our rivers and lakes. Then students discuss ways humans use this limited resource. Our three biggest uses of water are leaky faucets, washing machines, and showers. Well informed, they are ready to run through a relay race. They split evenly into teams to race each other. Rolling dice at the leaky faucet station, each student hops on one foot the number they rolled with a full glass of water. They move to the washing machine station where they spin a number of times, and then they pour the water back and forth between two cups at the shower station. They race to the end, empty the remaining water into a bin, and race to hand off the cup to the next student. The group that conserves the most water joyously wins the race.

Dan Zadra and Brandon Diamond with Colorado Parks and Wildlife lead discussions about wildlife that utilize riparian habitat. Skulls and pelts line a log by the Gunnison River. This includes species like moose, badgers, coyotes, and prairie dogs. Dan uses the teeth, eye location, and nasal cavity of each skull to help identify 1) species 2) their food source and 3) how they depend on riparian habitat. He fills the presentation with helpful sayings like, “eyes on the side, born to hide, and eyes in the front, born to hunt.” A moose has teeth for grinding vegetation so they are herbivorous. They are heavily dependent on the vegetation that grows within a riparian area. Also, having eyes on the side, students know that they are prey, vulnerable to predators, and can benefit from having a greater range of vision while their head is lowered for grazing.

Jim Lovelace with the Bureau of Land Management demonstrates the significance of ethical camping. He informs students about where to camp, where to go to the bathroom, and where to dispose of waste in riparian areas. Students put a flag where they think they should go to the bathroom, and at the end of four presentations, students observe the sheer number of flags waving in the wind. Students also learn about the problems associated with camp fires. Fires sterilize soil and the number of fire rings can drastically increase like the number of pin flags used to show bathroom spots. Jim demonstrates solutions to reduce fire rings and shows students the appropriate size wood to burn.

Nicole Gibney with the National Park Service introduces students to macro-invertebrates. First, students break down the meaning of aquatic macroinvertebrates. They learn about life cycles and metamorphosis. Macroinvertebrates are in their juvenile state in the water, and this is when it is the most fun for students to catch and try their hand at identifying the aquatic critters. The water is flowing pretty quickly through the Gunnison River, so Nicole took the pleasure of collecting samples ahead of time and placing them in tubs with helpful identification keys. Students huddle around the tubs and spend a little time looking at different macroinvertebrates.

Last, but certainly not least, Ashley Hom with the US Forest Service guides students through the process of calculating stream flows and the significance of understanding stream hydrology. She even helps me to better visualize and guess the quantity of water flowing through the Gunnison River.  Ashley starts out by introducing students to United States Forest Service and their role in our public lands. She informs students about good stewardship practices by inserting fun sayings like, “don’t leave your TP from your pee-pee.”  She then brings some real science into the mix, and students measure how quickly a stick floats 100 feet in 10 seconds. Students compare their estimated flow rate of cubic feet per second (cfs) against their calculated cfs flow rate.

At the end of the day, everyone has learned a lot, including myself. This is a fantastic event, and I am grateful for having attended and even participated. I would personally like to thank the presenters who took the time to plan and organize such fun and educational stations. The community benefits significantly from a deep understanding of our watershed. They also walked away with the tools they need to be environmental stewards and best practices for water resources.