Max Johnson, a fifth-grader at Keet Gooshi Heen Elementary, examines water samples collected in Cutthroat Creek. The sample at left shows water conditions near the source of the runoff. The samples at right show water conditions after the Stream Team intervened.

A major threat to an urban riparian system has been removed. A team of researchers conducting a longitudinal study of Cutthroat Creek this winter discovered that hydrocarbons, and possibly other pollutants, were contaminating the waterway and threatening both plants and aquatic organisms. The source? A pile of snow plowed from the parking lot of a nearby elementary school. The scientists? Fifth-graders who have studied the stream all year. Listen to iFriendly audio.
It’s the lunchtime recess at Keet Gooshi Heen Elementary school. Most of the students are on the playground, enjoying what — by Alaska standards — is a pretty mild spring day.

“We recorded this one last time.”

But it’s not all play. On the other side of the fence, on the banks of a small stream called Cutthroat Creek, these students have their rubber boots on. They’re measuring, sampling, and recording –everything from insect life, to stream flow, to water chemistry, to the size of the buds on the elderberry bushes.

“Three and three-quarters.”

The fifth-grade Stream Team, in Rebecca Himschoot’s class, has spent every lunch recess on Tuesdays and Thursdays since the beginning of school studying the Cutthroat Creek ecosystem. Toward the end of this winter, the Stream Teamers observed something quite significant happening at Cutthroat Creek.

“Two days ago during our weekly visit to Cutthroat Creek we noticed there was oil, or some other pollutant in the water.”

This is Sydnee Kimber reading a letter she and the other Stream Teamers sent to Sitka’s city hall.

“That’s when we discovered the snow pile that had been plowed next to Cutthroat Creek appeared to be hanging over and melting into the creek.”

A pile of plowed snow melting on a stream bank, or on the beach, is not an unusual sight in Sitka. But, as Skylar Moore explains, something about this snow pile was not right.

“Well, there was a little stream connected to the snow pile that was going into our stream. So that was very suspicious.”

KCAW — What did it look like?
Moore — It looked like regular water, but when it got into the stream it looked very oily.

The snowmelt did have oil in it, along with antifreeze – which the students thought smelled like Sprite – and also road salts. The Stream Teamers collected a sample. It was very dark gray and silty — almost black — like something you might get out of a very nasty mud puddle.

Max Johnson believed action was needed to protect the creek and the life in it.

“Since we noticed that the chemicals were affecting the stream, we knew it would probably kill wildlife like cutthroat or rainbow trout that live in Cutthroat Creek, or animals that drink from it, like squirrels or birds. So we just decided to do something about it.”

Stephen Weatherman is Sitka’s municipal engineer.

“The problem there at Keet is that the parking lot is designed to drain down to the stream, which is a very typical way of doing storm-drain drainage. Here in Sitka, we’re becoming more environmentally conscious, more environmentally in tune with what’s going on. It’s a salmon stream I believe: It’s a good idea to protect things like that. If we can move the snow to a different location for it to melt and flow cross-country through the grasses and bushes, that will help filter the oil out and the other negative materials. And that’s a pretty standard methodology for filtering runoff, is having it go through a biofilter.”

The Stream Team’s letter landed on Weatherman’s desk at 4:30 in the afternoon one day. By 7:30 AM the following day, the snow pile was gone. Weatherman credits Mike Webb’s road crew for the speedy work. It didn’t necessarily matter that the appeal came from fifth graders.

“The fact that they were kids was interesting and neat at the same time. And we could go ahead and respond appropriate to them. It didn’t take a lot of extra effort on our part to deal with it. But it just as easily could have been a parent group or other environmental group in town that noticed something. We would have responded the same way. Again, it’s something that can be done, we can do it, and there’s no reason not to do it.”

Weatherman says all new storm sewer work in Sitka — like most of Alaska’s urban areas — will have sump systems that collect both sediments and oil before the runoff hits the streams or ocean. Finding a new location for the Keet Gooshi Heen snowpile that naturally filters the meltwater is an intermediate step.

Marnie Chapman — “So, how do you feel about having written a letter that got that snowbank moved so it didn’t melt into your stream?”
Students — Happy!

The Stream Team’s success doesn’t feel like a huge victory. They weren’t really asking for the world — just for the city to move a pile of snow that posed a threat to a stream that they understand probably better than anybody. That, says Marnie Chapman, one of the Stream Team parent-helpers, is the win here.

“You know, I think the biggest takeaway is an interest in science through observation skills. We’ve really seen a change in the kids over the course of the year as we worked on it. They’re more interested now than when they started, just by being out there, being observers of nature and collecting their data, and seeing what’s going on. They feel a real sense of ownership, a sense of stewardship, toward that trail, which is just what we wanted to see.”

Chapman — So what do you guys think, would you like to run some quick tests on some of this water from the snowbank, and see if it’s any different
Kids — Yes!
Chapman — We’re thinking we might try the nitrate, and pH might make a difference.