Sunday, March 4, 2012

Hangin' with the Girl Scouts

For the space of one board meeting every month, and assorted and various other activities in between, I get to dive head first into my local creeks.  Sadly, not literally.  Just into their world.  Which is a very mixed bag, locally.

Remember those listed species I get so starry eyed about?  California red-legged frog, baby, right here in town.  Well, in a location that shall go unnamed for the protection of said frogs, but right here, in the local creeks.  Portions of our local creeks are gorgeous - protected lands, healthy riparian corridor, beautiful walking paths.  Dragonflies and wood ducks and loveliness.

And portions need... a lot of help.  Trashed, culverted, concrete lined channels covered with invasive species.

Recently I was contacted by two separate troups of local girl scouts, both wanting to help out the local creeks.  These moms are awesome - so enthusiastic about getting their kids involved in nature and about teaching them to care for the environment.  So excited that we're excited to get them involved.

So Girl Scout Troupe #1 (not their real number), a group of 12 first graders, is dedicating three meetings this year to the creeks.  Yesterday was Meeting 1: Learn about why creeks are important and what they can do to help creeks.  Next month will be a hands on creek clean-up.  And (this is my favorite, these girls are so awesome), the following month will be where the troupe goes class room to class room in their school, teaching the other kids in their school about the importance of healthy creeks in their town and for the environment.

The best part is that I didn't come up with any of this.  The girls and the moms came up with this completely on their own, and just contacted us for technical assistance.  Heck yeah, I can do that!

Another board member and I spent Saturday morning with these 12 girls and their moms, having a brilliant time.  We talked about where water comes from and where it goes, and who lives in the creeks, and who depends on clean water (us!) and what happens to everything that goes down our drains or that we pour on our gardens.  You know, the whole deal.  And then we spent about an hour rotating between hands on creek activities: a creek art project designed by a mom, and two that we brought: a build a watershed project, and a creek banks make clean water project.  Just in case you ever need to talk to 1st graders (or K-4, really), you can find the activities below.

But for now, a big shout out to a group of 12 awesome girls, who know a lot about the world they live in, and who care even more.  Looking forward to hanging with you again next month - you rock!

Watershed Activities for kids: adapted with thanks from the Bureau of Land Management Website

Making watersheds activity
Materials: For this activity, you will need various sizes of rocks ( I like a  sand or clean potting soil, some gravel, and some larger rocks in various sizes) , a shallow plastic wash basin or tub (the kind you could use as a small wash tub in a sink), saranwrap or aluminum foil , a blue permanent marker and a brown or black permanent marker, and a sprinkling can or spray bottle (to simulate rain).

Procedure: After talking with the kids about all the components of a watershed, place  the sand or soil in your tub and have the kids sculpt into hills and valleys. They should make a low spot at one end for the ocean or lake, and add some rocks in the wash basin to build mountains. Otherwise, it's all up to their imaginations. When they're done sculpting, cover closely with plastic wrap or foil (mold it over your mountains and down into your valleys). Ask the students to guess the route "rainwater" (from the sprinkling can or spray bottle) will take and where it will pool, run, and be stored. Mark the predicted route or ponds with a blue permanent marker. Then test the students' predictions by spraying or sprinkling the area and observing the path of the water.

Watersheds are divided by areas of high elevation. When rain lands on the ground, it travels downhill to be drained. If water hit a mountaintop or ridgetop in the model and traveled in more than one direction, it is likely that there was more than one watershed. How many watersheds did the kids create in the model?  Use the brown/black marker to circle the watersheds.

Build in some free time to let them experiment with changing up their watersheds.  Can they make two or three in the basin?


How watersheds clean water activity
The discussion here is how healthy, natural creek banks clean and filter water before it gets into our creeks and water supplies.  We talk about 1. the first rains of the season, 2. the process by which healthy soil cleans water, and 3. whether healthy soil can also clean/filter man-made pollutants.

Materials: You will need a flower pot with a drainage hole; some sand, soil, and gravel; a bottle of food coloring, collection containers (small plastic bins work) and some muddy water.

 Have the kids fill the flower pot with layers of "creek bank materials" : gravel, sand, and dry potting soil.  Make the layers nice and thick.
 Mix up a batch of really muddy water.  Don't just use potting soil, it's too clean.  Use some nice clayey mud from your garden.  

The first pour is the creek bank at the end of summer, when it hasn't rained in a while, and the soil has dried out.  Slowly pour the muddy water over your "creek bank" and catch what comes out the bottom.

 Yuck.  The water is still really muddy.  All the dirt and dust and road grit from all summer long has washed into your creek, and the dry soil hasn't filtered it at all.  This is why it's important to stay out of creeks, and off of beaches, after the first few rains of the year.

Add some extra soil to your creek bank now, if needed, and press it down tight.  The tighter you press, the cleaner your water will come out.  Keep pouring that muddy water slowly, in batches, through your creek bank.  Each pour will come out cleaner than the one before, as your soil particles compress and swell, making a nice thick, tight filter that does an excellent job cleaning up that nasty, muddy water.  About three pours later, the creek bed is really starting to filter your water, and provide clean water to fish, insects, plants, and your drinking water plant.  This is why it's important to have natural creek banks, and to minimize impervious surfaces (cement, asphalt) near water bodies.  Without natural earth, we have no natural filters to provide clean water.

Finally, ask the kids to add a few drops of food coloring to the top of the creek bank.  This represents man-made pollutants.  Car oil, garden pesticides, medicine that goes down the drain.  Have them guess whether their creek bank will remove the pollutant. It may take a couple more batch of muddy water before that food coloring comes through, but it will come through: the creek bank can filter out natural dirt, but since we can't predict that it will filter out all the man-made chemicals, we should be very careful about what we apply to our gardens, or put down our storm drains. 


  1. Hey! What a wonderful idea for a blog, and thanks so much for describing the projects. I'll do them with my kids, too.

  2. Hi Ryl! Thanks for stopping by. Even my two-year old has a blast with the sand-box-in-a-bin. He doesn't quite grasp the watershed component yet. But yeah, it's an easy backyard weekend project for anyone with kids and a small garden.

  3. Inspiring that there are youngsters coming along who are growing up with attitudes of responsibility for the environment. Brava to these girls and their awesome mums, and to those like Rebecca who share the expertise that will inspire and guide. ! doff my hat to you all.

  4. Your 'draining' experiment reminds me of our waste system. Here in this far corner of Wales, our house waste is piped direct to an old septic tank because we're not connected to any mains sewerage. There are two chambers to the septic tank, access to which is via a manhole in our paddock. We don't pour strong chemicals or bleach down out lavatories or basins because it's important for the natural balance of bacteria to do the work of breaking down excrement in the tank, and so only very mild eco-friendly soaps and household cleaners are employed. Every now and again we lift the manhole cover to check what's going on, and to ensure that the tank is in balance. Now I don't want to give the impression than when we lift the lid there's a scent of rose-water under it, but what staggers me that although the tank has an odour of dank muddiness, there isn't at all what you might expect by way of unpleasantness, despite what pours in there. Everything breaks down naturally and any overflow discharges slowly into our healthy paddock, where wildflowers and herbs bloom with profligacy every summer, because we use no pesticides or fertilisers on the soil. We've lived here seven years now and there have been no problems with the septic tank. Moreover it's never required pumping out, because it does its job so well that it's never got even close to full. We warn people who stay here not to put anything down the lavatories, save what you'd expect and the lavatory paper.

    Every time I turn on the TV I see ads for toxic household chemicals, bleaches, scents and caustic substances designed to nuke the hell out of whatever may be lurking down there. We use nothing like that, and yet our lavatories are clean and the bathrooms are pleasant rooms to enter. Mild detergent and regular elbow grease are our weapons of choice when it comes to keeping the place sweet, and our bill for household chemicals is non-existent.

    Rebecca, can you answer a question for me? For years now I've kept a box of matches and a china dish for the spent ones in our loos, suggesting to everyone staying here that if they fear a visit has left a less than sweet smell, then striking a match will render the air clear again. (I really can't bear the smell of aerosol fresheners!) The technique really seems to work. Can you explain the science? Is it just that the small flames of matches burn off odorous gases?

  5. Clive,

    That's exactly how a healthy septic system is supposed to work, and kudos to you for making the effort to keep them healthy. A heavy dose of strong household cleaners really would kill off those beneficial bacteria and render the whole thing the smelly mess that most people think of when they think "septic."

    I've just hit "publish" on the next post, which describes my reaction to finding gardeners about to use harsh chemicals in my garden, so clearly, you and I are as one in this.

    We also use the matches trick rather than deodorizers in our bathrooms, and you're absolutely correct - it works perfectly, and in seconds. I assume that your explanation is correct - human bathroom odors are at least partially methane based, and methane is flammable, so it makes sense. But it has to be a match: a lighter does not work as well. So it's possible that the sulfurous odor of the match masks the sulfur/methane bathroom odors, with what our brains are wired to recognize as a more acceptable scent. Fun topic!

  6. There! I KNEW you'd give the explanation based on science rather than household lore. Many thanks. I shall show this to Peter when he returns. Tee hee!