NEWMAN GROVE, Neb. — John Johnson remembers spending summers splashing in Shell Creek. Back then, the skinny stream that meanders around here still had shells in it, too.
The farmer has lived his entire life next to the waterway, which drains into the Platte River, but it doesn’t look anything like when he was younger.
Since 1988, complaints of fish kills in the creek have attracted the attention of groups from the Lower Platte North Natural Resources District to law enforcement. The water pooled cloudy and pungent in some places, and streamed by with contaminants where it flowed.
In the 1990s, officials said the stream had become too polluted to support much, if any, fish. By 1999, locals formed the Shell Creek Watershed Improvement Group to understand and combat the area’s soil erosion, flooding and diminished water quality.
The Norfolk Daily News (http://bit.ly/2bVuSvz ) reports that the speculation for decades has been that someone’s illegally dumping livestock manure into the creek, although run-off from farms and eroded soil could also be slipping into the water and adding to the problem.
But despite the efforts of several governmental agencies, the source of the contamination has never been confirmed.
Now, hardly anyone goes near the water.
That’s why when Johnson spies the Newman Grove Public Schools van pulled over on a gravel road near the creek, it’s worth stopping for. Students amble around, each with a job to do, taking notes on clipboards, dragging nets through the creek while wearing forest-green waders and stashing old juice jugs filled with murky water in the van.
Johnson rolls down the window of his white truck, cornstalks wedged in his grill from being in the field, and calls over Mark Seier, a science teacher at the school.
“Checking the water?” Johnson asks.
The “Shell Creek summers,” as some call them, have been a Newman Grove tradition for 15 years now.
For two days each month from May to August, around 20 students — or nearly half of the high school — have collected samples and measurements to determine the water quality of the Shell Creek watershed. Back in the school science lab, they spend more days performing and analyzing the tests.
In the fall, the students present their findings to the public and the program’s sponsors, who use the information to monitor the creek and as a factor in regulatory policies for the waterway.
At the request of the watershed improvement group, students began testing the creek in 2002 under the guidance Seier and another teacher, Gene Wissenburg. The goal was to gather information about the creek’s water quality and spread awareness about the waterway in the community. With the funding of local organizations, the Newman Grove Public Schools science department recruited volunteers and dove right in.
The first year was dedicated to finding macroinvertibrates, organisms which have different levels of sensitivity to problems in water quality.
The next year, the group began chemical studies to determine the creek’s Water Quality Index, a score based on nine tests to determine whether the water quality ranges from “very bad” to “excellent.”
In general, their results have shown the creek’s water falling into the fair to medium range.
Over the years, the program evolved, gathering more volunteers. They expanded to test Beaver Creek to provide a comparison for the Shell Creek results. And since the water quality often took a dip with more rain, they added a flood study at the request of the Nebraska Department of Environmental Quality in 2007.
Further south, the water is also tested by Schuyler Central High School, although watershed monitoring hasn’t caught on elsewhere in the area.
“I think this would be a great way to teach citizen science,” Seier said. “Every school in the state belongs to a watershed.”
Currently, Seier only works part time at the school, but he still oversees the testing with the help of science teacher Danielle Amen and agriculture teacher Kylie Sweeter.
At this point, though, he watches more than he instructs. As about 15 students arrive in the science classroom at 8 a.m. on July 20, most of them know what to do to get ready for the day.
To participate in the project, students have to be at least a sophomore, and sometimes people even return to test a year or two after graduating.
“The great thing about this, is that the older kids really take ownership,” Seier said.
When he asks the group if they have any questions or concerns before heading out, he’s met with silence for a moment.
Sixteen-year-old Levi Krueger drums his hands on the desk where he’s sitting.
“Let’s do this,” he says, and the rest of the classroom chatters as they spring up and head to the vans. With six sites to test, they students split into two groups, Seier’s van heading north and Sweeter’s to the south.
Kreueger’s one of those clad in waders, ready for getting in the water. His favorite class is biology, so it makes sense that he’d be interested in the program. But his father is also a farmer, and if what the group learns about the creek is important to his dad, than it’s important to him, too, he said.
People want to know what’s draining out of their fields and into the water.
Down in the creek, he’s discovered a buffalo skull, a geocache and a basketball. Yet there’s also been signs of life, like fish and even a turtle last year.
“It’s a fun-filled environment where we learn a lot of things,” he said. “It’s so much better than being in a classroom.”
Hannah Haas is checking off her third summer at Shell Creek. For many students, coming to the test has to be crammed into busy schedules. On other days, Haas works as a lifeguard, ambulance technician and at an agriculture business.
She likes working with the chemicals and plugging the numbers though, so she makes time for the program. Besides, it’s an excuse to hang out with her classmates.
“It’s also the social aspect of it all, you get to be around all your friends and it’s fun,” she said.
In a couple years, Seier’s thinking of retiring and passing along leadership of the project to other teachers.
For now though, he’ll continue on with the monitoring. Tagging along with the group on that Wednesday was one of Seier’s greatest motivations for continuing the project, a red-haired, 9-year-old boy. Earlier in the day, Henry Ramaekers said he was going to repurpose one of the nets used to capture macroinvertebrates to catch Pokemon, but he understands his grandfather’s purpose at the waterway.
“I’m working for the day when my grandkids can go back and safely play in the creek,” Seier said.
As he drives, Seier passes one of six highway signs put up last year featuring designs by students to promote the watershed.
He hopes the attention the school’s brought to the creek might have discouraged people from continuing to contaminate it. But it’s not the school’s job to figure out the reasons behind the pollution, he said.
“We’re here to figure out what it is, and someone else will figure out why,” he said. “We’re not pointing blame.”
People have noticed the group’s efforts though. Students have garnered enough awards, letters from senators and medals to line the bottom shelf of a small trophy case in the school’s entryway. The program’s been utilized for science fair entries and FFA projects and it’s also been a key factor in several scholarships students have received.
“They feel like they’re accomplishing something,” Seier said.
It seems like they are. In recent years, Seier said the data appears to indicate that the water quality is improving. When Haase started calculating WQI numbers last year, she could hardly believe the results.
“I ran to Mr. Seier, like ‘Oh my gosh, we don’t have any bads this year!’ ” she said.
The better measurements aren’t conclusive of anything, and the creek is still far from being safe.
But the group is optimistic.
“There’s never been a creek of not-safe water made so you can swim in it,” Kreuger said. “It’d be nice if we could be the first ones to change that.”
Information from: Norfolk Daily News, http://www.norfolkdailynews.com