Youth focus on healthy water for productive wetlands

Linda Benedict  |  9/16/2015 8:27:04 PM

Water, water everywhere! Huge quantities of the nutrient-laden wet stuff spilling through thousands of inlets and bays provide a popular perception of why Louisiana’s coastal estuaries and waterways are some of the most productive waters in the world for seafood and fisheries.

But a more detailed view of the ecosystem shows that without healthy wetlands, the bountiful wildlife would largely go away. Unfortunately, since 1930, more than one million acres of Louisiana coastal wetlands have vanished.

Young people who have participated in the LSU AgCenter’s 4-H Youth Wetlands program may be among the most well-versed segment of the population when it comes to the issue. Since the program began in 2007, more than 600,000 students statewide have gotten their hands wet and muddy, while actively learning about the delicate balance of wetland ecosystems and the importance of wise conservation and restoration practices.

They have teamed up for service-learning projects and spread awareness of the problem of coastal erosion, demonstrating that there is strength in large numbers. A crucial part of their educational process has centered on sampling water and exploring the proper balance and qualities of a healthy water supply.

LSU AgCenter educators, with input from science teachers, created wetland lesson plans and activities that meet Louisiana’s Grade Level Expectations and the Common Core Standards for third- through 12th-grade classes. More than 9,000 teachers statewide have incorporated the free materials and unique activities into their curriculum, implementing them in classrooms, school yards and field trip settings.

Throughout the school year, students dive into aqua-centric experiments like designing an ideal filter to simulate a wetland and show how it purifies dirty water and sediment or building their own watershed to observe how pollution moves through the landscape.

Optional teacher training sessions are held throughout the year, and older students can be trained to teach younger students as well. Annual hallmarks of the program are Youth Wetlands Week held statewide during April, coinciding with Earth Day celebrations, and summer environmental camps.

During Youth Wetlands Week, students participate in service-learning campaigns that help purify water systems. Activities include trash bashes, beach sweeps, invasive species removals and planting of vegetative species in wetland areas.

4-H’ers in one service-learning project built 3,000 feet of coastal fencing at Breton Sound – a feat that
helped create 10 acres of wetland, according to U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimates. But wetlands in other parts of the state are important, too.

Youth learn wetland concepts all over the state and not just along the coast. Students have, for instance, done wetland work at upland and hardwood swamps and created schoolyard wetland habitats that capture rainfall, store water and cleanse runoff of pollutants.

Summer camps include the Louisiana Outdoor Science and Technology (LOST) Camp for seventh- and eighth-graders at the Grant Walker 4-H Educational Center in Pollock. Marsh Maneuvers is a summer camp that takes place at Rockefeller Wildlife Refuge in southwest Louisiana.

Marsh Maneuvers, started in 1989, is considered one of the premiere wetland camps in America. Adult educators take four groups of about 16 selected high school youth, one group per week, and immerse them in marine wetland ecosystems along the Gulf of Mexico, teaching them about marine ecology and hydrology.

The 4-H’ers ride through marshes on air boats and glide past the heads of bobbing alligators and splashing fish, cast nets for fish and crabs, hold baby alligators (not at the nest), learn about the life cycles of marine life and jump into muddy-bottom marsh waters to transplant vegetative grasses into strategic locations. Selective plants like bulwhip and smooth cordgrass not only hold soil together, decreasing the effects of erosion and quickly building up new wetlands, but they help purify dirt and sediments from the water.

In a year, the quick-growing plants will have clumped together and thickened significantly in diameter and height by several feet, sending down deep roots and creating an impressive new stand of wetlands.
Since the inception of the Youth Wetlands Program, students have planted nearly 100,000 vegetative plugs.

Students are able to see with their own eyes the delicate natural mixture of nutrients and of freshwater and saltwater that creates an ideal concoction for marine creatures to thrive. This brackish soup is the lifeblood of Louisiana’s coastal estuaries, but these youth realize healthy wetlands help make it possible. The campers discover that too many nutrients in the Gulf of Mexico, however, can cause hypoxic zones where fish are deprived of precious oxygen.

Louisiana is one of the only states that includes environmental science in its content standards. The Louisiana Science Teachers Association has endorsed the wetlands lessons, which fit into multiple subject areas like science, English, math and art.

Teachers can contact their local LSU AgCenter extension offices to get free packets, which include a curriculum binder, classroom materials, laboratory supplies and field materials. The educational materials also include a video series called Wet Work, which highlights possible careers in environmental sciences.

Wet Work is a takeoff on the television series on the Discovery Channel entitled “Dirty Jobs.” In these fast-paced, award-winning videos, teen hosts shadow professionals to places like the Davis Diversion Canal in St. Charles Parish – an architectural marvel and the only one of its kind in the world. The structure diverts freshwater from the Mississippi River into brackish wetlands to help minimize the destructive effects of saltwater intrusion from the Gulf of Mexico.

In another video the 4-H host takes a fast boat ride with two fisheries agents on coastal Lake Borgne. The teen helps test water variables and haul in oysters and fish samples, while learning the importance of proper fisheries management.

The Youth Wetlands program, which is funded by the Louisiana Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority, has received national recognition from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as an outstanding program connecting youth to natural resources. The program was also named a national program of distinction by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and a program of excellence by the National Association of Extension 4-H Agents.

Evaluations show students gain a significant increase in knowledge from the Youth Wetlands program. They understand more clearly the precarious balance of a healthy wetland ecosystem. Their multiple efforts, in some way or another, have helped improve water quality and the overall health of wetland ecosystems throughout the state.

As 4-H campers at Rockefeller Refuge climb to the top of a viewing tower during the purplish-pink shades of sunset, they cast their eyes on an incredibly immense ecosystem and an unending panorama of water. This is the culmination of their journey from the classroom to the coastline.

But the peacefulness of the balmy evening breeze belies an increasing threat to marine fisheries, homes and communities. Now, because of what they’ve learned and done in the Youth Wetlands program, they know this place has its limits and that there is much more to the picture in front of them than meets the eye.

Randy LaBauve is an associate specialist in LSU AgCenter Communications and a video producer.

The summer 2015 issue of Louisiana Agriculture magazine includes articles on a variety of topics that affect Louisiana’s agriculture industry and the environment – water management at Catahoula Lake, 4-H youth wetland programs, artificial reefs for water conservation, corn nitrogen management in saturated soil conditions, and more. 36 pages

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