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Lynchburg College students study health of area creeks

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LYNCHBURG, Va. (AP) — Donning overall waders and a backpack emitting a stunning current into the water, Ryan Thresher and fellow students searched for fish in Ivy Creek at Peaks View Park.

They searched around logs and shade cast by trees growing on the bank, the same surroundings where they found wildlife in other parts of Ivy and Blackwater creeks.

"There was nothing but sand and sediment out there and it was horrible," Thresher said after he, Gary James and Tyler Stadtherr presented their findings to the Lynchburg College freshwater class last week.

He said they searched for about twice as long at Peaks View Park than when sampling other sites, but found less than half the fish.

Their findings were combined and compared with other data by their classmates in Lynchburg College's freshwater ecology class. Students spent much of the spring semester learning about the symbiosis of stream life, developing consistent scientific methods and collecting samples.

Then, they took to eight sections of Ivy and Blackwater creeks to gather and analyze data for the watershed that empties into the James River.

Their results indicated creeks systems with a variety of struggles related to stormwater carrying pollutants from paved surfaces into streams and eroding sediment. Tests taken at agricultural sites had their own problems, including higher levels of E. coli compared to urban areas.

Students said they were surprised by the amount of litter, tires and random pieces of junk they found while testing streams.

"It's a great snapshot, and that's really important for us as an overall reminder of how important this is," Kent White, Lynchburg's director of community development, said after the presentation last week.

White, who also teaches hydrology at the college, said the data is only a "snapshot" because so many factors play into the single-day tests, such as heavy rain. He said daily samples would be needed to get the whole picture.

White has been involved in the class since it started in 1998, when he worked for the Robert E. Lee Soil and Water Conservation District. He said Tom Shahady, the third professor to head the class, is responsible for honing the methodology and creating more consistent tests to sample community creeks since 2004.

The class broke into groups to test chemical levels, animal counts, stream bank slope and water flow. Their analysis included how different health indicators interact, as well as how the data fits into political and budgetary discussions.

While learning the art of science, students also provide a sampling of the community watershed's health.

"It makes you feel like the class had more meaning than what we were learning . turning it into something that will be useful," said Joshua Cahow, who tested physical aspects of stream banks, including slope.

Shahady told students to look at practical solutions for the problems they found, taking into account they would be presenting it to a governmental body with a limited budget.

Students suggested solutions including adding riparian buffers, or plants and bushes along riverbanks to soak up stormwater and minimizing erosion. One group suggested abandoning Rock Castle Creek because their data showed the stream that runs along Wards Road was so damaged. Assuming they had a limited budget, they suggested putting efforts into Tomahawk and Dreaming creeks instead.

Shahady teaches his students to be not only scientists, but people who will speak up for their data.

"I am creating advocates, but I'm trying to make sure they can critically think," Shahady said. ". I'd hate to say, 'The stream's polluted,' and walk away."

He said his job as a teacher is to help students understand the importance in fixing problems, not just identifying them.

"You've got to teach them how to be citizens. You've got to teach them how to be involved," he said.

While students learned to look at the ecosystem making community decisions, the main focus was on how the plants, animals, rocks and water interact in a freshwater stream.

John Rathburn said learning about the layers of life, such as the macro-invertebrates thriving below riverbed rocks, helped him see the entire ecosystem the river supports.

"There's a huge magnitude of life you never see," he said. ". It's like putting on night vision goggles at night. All the stuff you didn't see before is there."

Keeley Raths, who studies environmental science and communications at Lynchburg College, made a documentary called "Fresh Water" about Lynchburg College's Freshwater Ecology class studying Lynchburg-area streams. To view it, visit:


Information from: The News & Advance,

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