By Marty Denzer
Catholic Key Reporter
KANSAS CITY — On beautiful spring days, getting out of the classroom is a dream come true. A dozen St. John Francis Regis School eighth graders got that chance when they joined a group of Environmental Protection Agency scientists for a Blue River Watershed Association-sponsored outdoor class event in Swope Park. The BRWA is a non-profit environmental educational organization that trains and partners with educational, environmental and business organizations to promote knowledge and stewardship of the three local rivers: the Missouri, the Kaw and the Blue River.
Deep in the park, across the road from the Lake of the Woods, lies an environmental gem, a wetland. The Lake was created more than a century ago by damming a section of the Blue River, which flows through the park. The wetland, a freshwater marsh where groundwater, a tributary creek and surface overflow from the lake meet land, is home to many native species of plants, fish and wildlife. Having learned a lot about the Blue River in science classes over the past year, the students were there to learn from the EPA scientists about the importance of wetlands to the environment, especially the river.
Jeans-clad eighth graders AJ Taylor, Nick Scherer, Dezmond McDaniel, Anna Sell, Joseph Dimarco, Danny Meyers, Amanda Wesche, Grant Cushing, Ayo Adebayo, Jillian Kimbrell, David Haag and Cody Wesche followed teams of scientists down a slippery, sloping trail, through the trees and brush of a riparian (riverbank or watershed) forest to the marshland behind the old Lakeside Nature Center at Gregory Blvd. and Oldham Road. They were part of a trained group of students who mentored to younger students from St. Regis and other schools at BRWA and EPA educational events.
The Blue River flows northeast from Johnson County, Kan., crosses the state line into Kansas City and empties into the Missouri River near Worlds of Fun. Leslie Alford, executive director of the Blue River Watershed Association, said the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers are two of the most valuable natural resources in the U.S., and the Blue River flows right into the Missouri. “You can’t make water,” she added. “You can only recycle it, and the place to recycle water is the river.”
In recent years, the EPA and other organizations have studied the effects of urbanization along the Blue River. Stormwater runoff is a major concern in areas drained by the river as urbanization and urban sprawl have contributed to a significant downgrading of the water’s quality in the river and its tributaries, including Brush Creek.
Inland wetlands are areas where the soils are usually saturated or covered with water. Called swamps, sloughs, marshes or potholes — they are low-lying, open areas located near creeks, streams, rivers and lakes, where fresh water flows into the marsh.
The students, armed with notebooks, study guides and checklists, divided into groups and spent time at each of the three outdoor classroom stations conducted by the EPA. Steve Kovac, EPA Water Division branch manager, described the stations in detail.
The overall focus was a health assessment of the wetland. The assessment was based on the National Wetland Condition Assessment Survey used by resource managers, he said, but modified for use by seventh and eighth graders as an hour-long educational tool.
At the Landscape Level Assessment station, the students learn how to read and review GIS maps, which are basically a system that integrates, stores, edits, analyzes, shares, and displays geographic information from a number of sources for informed decision making. GIS maps are used to identify water sources, wetland functions, urban stress causes, and to “field verify” different characteristics of the landscape around them. For instance, the students learned to identify habitat buffers, strips of vegetation bordering water that act as buffers to contaminants and provide a habitat for wildlife or birds.
The Wetland Plants and Invasive Species station was manned by a scientist who described different types of vegetation found along the trail and in the marsh. The students learned to identify several native plant species, their roles and value to the wetland. Plants that tolerate wet roots grow in the marsh and surrounding floodplain. Cattail stands, saw grass, pickerelweed, spike rush and bulrush were examined and checked on assessment checklists. The scientist pointed out cottonwood, sycamore and silver maple trees which thrive in the wet soil that is often flooded when the Blue River rises. The marsh acts like a giant sponge, absorbing the waters until they recede, preventing damage to nearby man-made structures.
The kids also learned about the potential impact that invasive plant species may have on the wetland and surrounding forest. They were shown and asked to identify several native species of plants and briefly worked to remove several invasive species which could overwhelm the native plants. The scientists explained how to remove them effectively.
The Wetland Biology station was a favorite. Using a dipnet, an EPA scientist netted several small water creatures for the students to examine. One creature, rather like a slightly bloated charcoal-grey worm, was identified as a species of leech. Nearby students had mixed reactions to the leech inching its way up the scientist’s hand. “Eewww!” “Will it bite you?” “Cool!” “Let it go!”
After releasing the leech, the scientist pointed out other airborne and aquatic insects, fish, reptiles and amphibians, and a few mammals and birds that allowed themselves to be seen.
Butterflies of many varieties fluttered around the students’ heads. A heron floating in on outspread wings caught the kids’ attention and they watched it light on the marsh to catch its lunch. The marsh’s shallow water is accessible to animals seeking water and food as well as home to water creatures and marshland animals. Deer and raccoons are just two of the many species of animals that live there. Wood ducks, the only perching ducks in the state, build nests in the trees overhanging the water. Ducklings drop out of the nests to the water after they hatch. Great blue herons and other heron species hunt for frogs, salamanders, fish, crawdads and water snakes in the marsh.
Working under the supervision of EPA scientists, Leslie Alford and several volunteers, the students helped collect samples of water for quality testing. Wetlands have been referred to by environmentalists as nature’s kidneys, controlling and purifying water. The students learned that the thickly growing vegetation slows the flow of water entering the marsh, which allows floating soil particles to settle and remain in the marsh.
An EPA scientist explained that marsh plants store and use nitrogen and phosphorus generated by agricultural runoff — fertilizer infused water from farm irrigation seeps through the soil to the river and some finds its way to the marsh — for growth.
Wetlands are giant organic-matter sponges that can absorb up to 18 times their weight in water. During heavy rains, the spongy marsh can hold enormous amounts of water. After the rain stops, the marsh slowly releases the water back into the soil.
The eighth graders learned that microorganisms and plants living in the marsh absorb, breakdown and transform pollutants, including bacteria, elevated levels of nutrients, including nitrogen, dissolved solid wastes, hydrocarbon and other trace elements from manufacturing, wastewater treatment plants, storm water runoff, leaking sewer and septic tanks, even stuff that falls out of the sky. Plants and gravels help filter the water to rid it of sediments and inorganic materials. The eighth graders watched and listened as the scientists tested the water quality.
The water was tested for temperature, turbidity (muddiness caused by sediment), ph levels, phosphates, nitrates, conductivity of electricity and the presence of animal and human waste or trash.
Kovac said the student assessment of the wetland’s overall health indicated that it was in good condition. “The goal of the assessment,” he said, “was to provide an educational tool for seventh and eighth graders to learn about wetlands, their functions, and their economic and ecological importance in the aquatic ecosystem. The data, the results, and the conclusions will hopefully make a lasting impression in the minds of the students from St. Regis, and be passed on to future generations.”
Alford added that most of the local rivers and tributaries are in good condition, with low levels of chemicals, ions and wastes. That is one reason why Kansas City has such good-tasting tap water, she said.
Wetlands used to be considered little more than miserable, bug-infested wastelands. In recent decades, however, it has been found that wetlands are the most productive ecosystems in the world. And, to the St. Regis eighth graders, exploring a wetland was a great way to learn about the environment, outside on a beautiful day.