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RSDP Happenings - Focus: River Explorers in NW

August 2014

RSDP supports innovative River Explorers program

By Ronnie Schween

UMN Crookston faculty Katy Nannenga and daughter Grace

UMN Crookston faculty Katy Nannenga and daughter Grace paddle the Sand Hill River on an outing organized by River Watch's Wayne Goeken for the Rural Design Conference and RSDP's Statewide Coordinating Committee.

Minnesota may be the land of 10,000 lakes, but in Northwest Minnesota, citizens are trying to direct attention to a different water resource: rivers. Two years ago, Wayne Goeken, special projects coordinator with the Fargo based International Water Institute, approached Northwest RSDP (NWRSDP) for support to expand the youth-oriented River Explorers. NWRSDP provided key funding for the project, which, under the auspices of the pre-existing River Watch program, will provide opportunity for more kids to get outdoors and connect to the natural world and promote rivers as assets to the tourism base of the region.

River Watch is entering its 20th year as a citizen science program dedicated to monitoring water quality in the Red River Basin and engaging local community members in understanding the life and health local rivers. It has allowed area science classrooms to integrate hands-on, field-based experience into students' studies.

Today, River Watch is partnered with 25 high schools in the Minnesota portion of the Red River basin, which stretches more than 200 miles from Wheaton to the Canadian border (unlike most rivers in the world, the Red River flows northward), and more than 250 miles west to east across North Dakota and Minnesota. Students involved with River Watch monitor the Red River and its many tributaries at dozens of sites for water quality, clarity, oxygen level, and the presence of macroinvertebrates such as dragon fly nymphs and water bugs, learning about watershed science and the condition of their local environment in the process. River Watch is generally offered as an extracurricular activity for area middle and high school students interested in field-based environmental sciences.

Wayne Goeke

Wayne Goeke demonstrates equipment River Watch uses to measure water quality in the Red River Valley.

Building on River Watch's classroom and extracurricular success, several years ago Goeken saw an opportunity to get more students into kayaks and to deepen the connection between paddling and the environmental health of streams and rivers. With the support of NWRSDP and the Minnesota Clean Water Fund, the River Explorers project provides equipment and training to allow for river outings by River Watch teams and community participants. Goeken says that River Explorers aim is to "raise the awareness for these students that, yes, you can paddle and enjoy these resources-most of our students have never been in a kayak or on these rivers. These are beautiful rivers that many people don't realize are there."

In addition to a deepened connection with area schools, River Explorers is also involving youth organizations such as 4-H and science camps in its work. On River Explorer trips, the students use waterproof geotagging digital cameras to document conditions along the river for erosion or other management concerns as well as areas of beauty worthy of protection. They then share their findings with local watershed managers.

"On one of our early trips, we had students who were documenting culverts. When we got back we shared the information with the local watershed district technician who had been using Google Earth to locate them, and he was extremely grateful. The geotagged pictures that the students took gave him a lot of information," Goeken explains.

Laura Hill

Laura Hill helps River Watch plan and lead paddling trips and water quality management.

River Watch has made a long-term impact in the communities it serves, spurring some local towns to buy kayaks for their community members, and it has even prompted students to careers in natural resources. Current River Watch volunteer and natural resources research coordinator at University of Minnesota Crookston Laura Bell was part of the original River Watch pilot program when she was 14. Nineteen years later, she assists Goeken with planning student trips to-and on-the water. For Bell, it is all about motivating students to want to be involved with the rivers. "The best part is when students start saying, 'Man, I want to get a kayak.' They start getting really excited about it, and that's what we're going for."

Goeken has plans for future field work for the students, including cataloging the species of mussels that can be found in each local watershed, and keeping an eye out for invasive zebra mussels. With the support of groups like NWRSDP and the Red River Watershed Management Board, Goeken says River Watch plans to get even more kids outdoors to enjoy the rivers in their own backyard.

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