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‘Youth Water Summit’ focuses high school minds on water problems

Lake City High School junior Travis Kaufman, pictured Wednesday, April 13, 2016 at the school, is part of a team of students using a goldfish aquarium in an experiment comparing aquaponic farming to traditional farming. Idaho high school students from across the Panhandle will present water-related research projects at the third annual Youth Water Summit on Monday at the University of Idaho in Moscow. (Kathy Plonka / The Spokesman-Review)
Lake City High School junior Travis Kaufman, pictured Wednesday, April 13, 2016 at the school, is part of a team of students using a goldfish aquarium in an experiment comparing aquaponic farming to traditional farming. Idaho high school students from across the Panhandle will present water-related research projects at the third annual Youth Water Summit on Monday at the University of Idaho in Moscow. (Kathy Plonka / The Spokesman-Review)

Anyone who regularly cleans a fish tank will like this idea.

Three juniors at Lake City High School in Coeur d’Alene are running an experiment in Jamie Esler’s environmental science class. They’re pumping dirty water from the bottom of a large aquarium of goldfish and filtering it through an aquaponic planter with lettuce sprouts growing among absorbent clay pebbles.

“The plants clean the water, take out the nitrates and stuff, and then the water comes back in and is healthy for the fish,” Connor Shaw said.

The students daily test the pH, nitrate and nitrite levels, as well as water hardness. The results could lead to ways to reduce water pollution in rivers and algae blooms in lakes from agricultural runoff, use less water to grow some crops and better preserve groundwater supplies, the team said.

“We’re comparing traditional farming to aquaponics and seeing whether this is more beneficial for the plants,” Scott Kennedy said.

It’s one of dozens of water-related research projects happening at high schools across the Idaho Panhandle. On Monday, more than 200 students leading this research will present their work – and proposed solutions to problems – at the third annual Youth Water Summit at the University of Idaho in Moscow.

The summit is the culminating event of the UI’s Confluence Project to connect North Idaho high school students with experts in water and climate science in the region.

The project enhances science education and critical-thinking skills, said Jyoti Jennewein, the Confluence Project’s co-coordinator.

Another Lake City High team is examining the link between declining snowpack in the Coeur d’Alene watershed and water quality and recreation in Lake Coeur d’Alene.

“We’re mainly worried about the lake being low for recreational activities, like not being able to jump off cliffs or swim,” junior Kade Martinelli said.

Use of boat docks might become more difficult if the lake drops sharply, added junior Kali Whitaker.

They’ve collected snow survey data from the past few years, mining reports from the federal Natural Resources Conservation Service. The students also went up to Lookout Pass in February to take manual snow measurements.

On Thursday, sophomores in Cindy Rust’s honors biology class at Post Falls High School practiced 5-minute presentations on their research projects.

Toxic sediments on the bottom of Lake Coeur d’Alene, washed down from decades of mining in the Silver Valley, generated a couple of ideas. One group spoke on plans to use a submersible vehicle to collect samples of sediments as well as organisms that live on the lake bottom. Then they would measure heavy metals in mayflies and other macroinvertebrates, for instance.

The goal is to address the pollution to help protect the area’s tourism and the quality of fishing, team members said.

Another team proposed boosting oxygen levels in the lake using micro-bubble technology. “The plan is to have buoys throughout Coeur d’Alene Lake and have the machine under the buoys,” Nick Morris said.

Dereck Tonasket researched solutions to getting migrating chinook salmon around Grand Coulee Dam. He suggests using a “salmon cannon,” a vacuum-powered flexible conduit, to propel the fish up over the dam. The technology is being tested elsewhere along the Columbia.

“It kind of sounds silly, but it will shoot the fish at 22 mph,” Tonasket said, as a few classmates giggled. “But they’ve done research that it’s actually less harmful for the fish than the other solutions at other dams.”

The students can continue their work after Monday’s water summit, potentially leading to a topic for their senior project, Rust told her class. “If this is your passion, just let us know. We’ll find a way to help you continue on,” she said.

Students have worked with UI graduate students, the Lands Council, local tribal entities and others to learn about water quality, water availability, snow science, agriculture and aquatic habitats through field investigations, data collection and analysis.

“One of our goals is to try to find a good home for a lot of the student-generated data and make it accessible to other schools in the area,” Jennewein said.

Other topics this year include the ability of wastewater treatment plants to handle growing populations; measuring erosion after wildfire; surveying litter on lake beaches; measuring water infiltration rates in soccer fields; and investigating the effects of road de-icer on vegetation and wildlife.

University administrators, professors and students, local water resource professionals, agency scientists, representatives from the Idaho State Department of Education and others will judge the student projects presented Monday.

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