A hands-on lesson | TahoeDailyTribune.com

A hands-on lesson

Trisha Leonard
Trisha Leonard / Tahoe Daily TribuneForrest McCann, 10, hand-pulls Eurasian watermilfoil from a swale near Baldwin Beach on Tuesday afternoon as other fifth-graders (background) pull a bottom barrier into the swale.

More than 60 fifth-graders from Lake Tahoe Environmental Science Magnet School got their hands dirty Tuesday for a project at a swale near Baldwin Beach.

Throughout the school year, the students have studied the wet, low-lying area and the effect Eurasian watermilfoil – an ecosystem-altering, clarity-damaging plant – has had on it. According to fifth-grade teacher Bob Comlossy, the students first visited the swale in November and measured the swale and the population density. Since then, they took a couple more field trips to take photos and gather data.

“We adopted the swale, which represents a former level of the lake,” Comlossy said.

Fifth-grade teacher Jorie Turner said the students drove the project.

“They did a lot of hard, tedious work before having fun and doing things hands-on,” Turner said. “They even developed a slogan: SOS – Save Our Swale.”

Tuesday marked the culmination of the students’ education on the swale as they put their plans to curb milfoil into action. Students were wading into the swale, which is about 3 1/2 feet deep at its deepest part, to put down bottom barriers to starve the plant, while others were hand-pulling milfoil from the edges of the swale.

Forrest McCann, 10, was one of the students hand-pulling milfoil.

“We’re setting bottom barriers and picking it from the sides,” he said. “We learned what was native and invasive and how to get rid of the invasive species.”

McCann said the students did an experiment in which they put milfoil in two test tubes, one that got sun and the other that was covered by tin foil.

“The one in the sun photosynthesized, and the one in the tin foil died because there was no oxygen,” he said.

The students used that knowledge to devise a plan to get rid of the milfoil. Aquatic biologist Sarah Muskopf, who works for the U.S. Forest Service Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit, said they used two kinds of bottom barriers, a landscape fabric and a jute mat that will decompose on its own. Both block photosynthesis.

Summer Furrer, 11, was also hand-pulling milfoil from the sides of the swale.

“The Eurasian milfoil is not supposed to be here,” she said. “It’s not part of the original Tahoe.”

Furrer said that one of the hard parts of pulling the milfoil was that the students had to be careful not to drop it back in the water because it spreads.

“I learned a lot of people add stuff that shouldn’t be here,” she said. “Humans should not destroy the environment.”

Turner said this year the students focused on plant life, but eventually they hoped the project would serve a larger purpose.

“We’re also going to remove the culverts so this all turns back to being a filtering system for the lake,” Turner said.

Representatives from the U.S. Forest Service, Tahoe Resource Conservation District and Tahoe Regional Planning Agency also helped the students with their project.

Muskopf said the project was going well and the students got to see how agencies worked together to make things happen.

“By now they have a pretty good grasp on the problem,” she said. “Your impact on the environment is something everyone should learn from a young age.”

Muskopf said signs would be put up to inform visitors about the invasive species and the goals of the project.

“They’re the voice that can reach parents and the community,” Muskopf said.

Turner said this year’s fourth-graders will take over the project when they enter fifth grade in the fall. This year’s fifth-graders kept all their science data so future classes will be able to look at the photos and data and compare what has been done.

“I’m very proud of what they’ve done and how they’ve learned,” Turner said. “I hope to get other schools involved.”

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