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Hitting the Books — er, Brook

By Joshua Brown Article published April 14, 2006

Watershed Alliance
Jurij Homziak (right) pores over a stream map with Edmunds Middle School students. (Photo: Joshua Brown)

Crossing back and forth on logs, about 25 eighth-graders from Edmunds Middle School bash their way up Englesby Brook. “I hope I don’t fall in,” one of them shouts and then prances across the three-foot-wide current on a rickety board.

These students — under the guidance of UVM watershed specialist Jurij Homziak and science teacher Don Fox — are pioneers in the Urban Watershed Education Project. This effort, started in 2004 by UVM’s Watershed Alliance, aims to increase middle schoolers’ understanding of watershed science by developing lessons that teachers can apply to their own urban waterways; these students are getting to know Englesby Brook.

You may not have noticed Englesby Brook, nor how its two branches join near the Burlington Country Club, then flow under Route 7, Pine Street, and down to Lake Champlain near Oakledge Park. Until recently, Englesby Brook has been a Cinderella of streams: overlooked and so dirty that few could see beauty beneath.

But you might have seen the signs at Blanchard Beach, where the stream discharges, that read, “Notice: this area not recommended for swimming.” Lawn fertilizer, sediment from eroding streambanks, dumped trash — and lots of deposits from Fido and Fluffy — have damaged Englesby Brook for years. This pollution then flowed out to the beach, forcing the city to close it.

Now, Homziak and his colleagues in the Watershed Alliance — a collaboration of UVM’s Rubenstein School of Environment and Natural Resources, UVM Extension, and the Lake Champlain Sea Grant — are, well, seeking a prince or two to love this unlucky brook. Or maybe some science students from Edmunds School.

The alliance’s goal: strengthen statewide middle and high school education about watersheds and water quality. The students’ goal: work like detectives to find the point where a load of road salt is seeping into the water. Armed with a neighborhood map and plastic vials, they follow the streambed in teams of four, stopping along the way to scoop up water samples for testing.

“This is the fifth house,” says Sophie Daigle, looking up the rutted streambank to a house perched near the edge and then back down to her map. “No, its our sixth,” says her teammate Ben Osborne. As they debate where they are on the map, Homziak has quickly hiked uphill to a rusty culvert where the stream pours out.

“Look at all this algae here,” says Homziak, and the students peer down to get a closer look at brown fuzz covering rocks in the water. “What’s wrong with this picture?” he asks.

“There must be too much fertilizer in the water,” one student says, drawing on an earlier lesson, “like phosphorous. Maybe a dog, um, left something behind.”

“Exactly,” says Homziak. “You’re doing what the Agency of Natural Resources or Burlington Public Works would do if they were coming upstream, looking for some contamination. They would test along the way and at some point there would be a big jump in the amount. Then, they know they’re close.”

There has been a strong effort to clean up Englesby Brook over the last five years. UVM students and researchers in the Watershed Alliance have joined neighborhood groups, the city government, scientists from the United States Geological Survey, the Lake Champlain Committee, local businesses and others to measure water quality, haul away tires, build stormwater ponds, educate pet owners, plant streamside vegetation and other efforts.

But the brook, like other urban streams in Burlington, remains what scientists call “impaired.” (For more, see Befriending Urban Waters.) It’s missing certain fish and insects and plants that should be there. The EPA-funded pilot program grew from the realization that most of the surface waters in Chittenden County are in poor condition — and yet the city has no school-based education programs that focus on its own urban streams. Now in its second year, the alliance’s curriculum is being refined and will be tried out with a new group of students next year at Hunt Middle School.

“We want these student to know how to reduce domestic water pollution,” says the Watershed Alliance’s Caitrin Noel, UVM’s coordinator for the Edmunds project. “If you reach people when they’re young, you’ll change behavior for life. So we’re developing lessons that teachers can use in chemistry, physics, biology and human health classes — all with a thread of watershed stewardship.”