ERIE - Students at several schools across Monroe County will be getting their feet wet this spring as part of a program to determine the relative health of several area waterways.
Newly-elected Monroe County Drain Commissioner Dan Stefanski has been working with local educators to launch a multi-year program he calls "StreamSearch," and one of the places he plans to start is in a ditch near Erie Mason's athletic fields.
The program will use student volunteers and biology classes to catalog and record the number of macro-invertebrates - primarily larval bugs - living in area drains and waterways. The presence of the tiny but visible creatures can give a general indication of how healthy - or polluted - a waterway is.
"If we don't take care of our creeks," Mr. Stefanski said, "that life that we all rely on isn't going to be there."
Under the program, students will go into the field armed with very fine nets once or twice a year to a specific section of local waterway - in Mason's case the S.S. LaPointe Drain Extension off the athletic fields. The students will place the flat portion of the "D"-shaped nets on the stream bed, and then kick up some sediment a foot or two upstream, allowing the net to strain out the mud and leave the macro-invertebrates.
The larval insects are gathered up and inventoried by species, Mr. Stefanski said.
"One of the things that scientists have learned over the years is that some of these insects can't live in polluted waters, while others thrive in it," Mr. Stefanski said. "These insects are the prime food source for many different kinds of fish - Mayflies are a great example of what we're looking for - and a great way to measure how healthy a stream is."
The first counts are likely to be done this spring, Mr. Stefanski said.
Each participating school will adopt a stream to monitor.
For many years, Mr. Stefanski and other volunteers have conducted environmental surveys and macro-invertebrate inventories in the River Raisin and have built a long-term historic record that allows scientists and state environmental officials to measure the river's health.
Mr. Stefanski led the River Raisin effort as a "stream captain" when he ran the city of Monroe's waste water treatment plant, and as part of his campaign for drain commissioner last year, vowed to bring environmental education back into local schools.
Using macro-invertebrate studies with school children seemed like a logical fit, he said.
Mason Superintendent Marlene Mills said the school had embraced the overture from Mr. Stefanski, and said involving local students in such a project would give them some ownership of their surroundings and show them how small changes in the environment can have unintended consequences.
"Our kids are excited about doing this," Mrs. Mills said.