Northland Preparatory Academy’s seventh-graders rolled up their sleeves and got a little dirty at Oak Creek during a hands-on lesson about waterway contamination.
The school’s entire seventh-grade class split into two groups of 50 students and spent all day alternating between Slide Rock and Red Rock Crossing near Sedona. Officials with the Oak Creek Watershed Council and the University of Arizona Water Quality Extension taught the students how to determine how fast the water was flowing before helping them collect water samples at Slide Rock.
“We went down to the creek and took samples of the water to figure out how much E. coli is in the water,” said NPA student Maddy Spotts.
Every summer and fall, E. coli accumulates in the portion of Oak Creek that flows through Slide Rock State Park as a result of runoff that has come in contact with animal feces, dirty diapers, soil bacteria and decaying objects. Ash from this year’s Slide fire has made the contamination even worse. Over the summer, Arizona State Parks officials found levels of bacteria and E. coli readings as much as 10 times higher than the acceptable level.
On Monday, the UA and Oak Creek Watershed Council experts taught the NPA students about how litter left by humans attracts animals to the banks of Oak Creek. They eat the human food waste and defecate near the water, sending E. coli and other bacteria downstream.
NPA student Emily Casali said she did not realize littering in one place could affect the environment far away.
“If you leave trash around, it can pollute more than just that spot where you left it,” she said.
Her classmate, Will Schwartz, added that plants and wildlife are not the only ones affected by contamination in Oak Creek.
“Litter affects all of us,” he said.
Driven by their newfound knowledge about how human litter can cause serious water contamination, the NPA seventh-graders joined forces with the U.S. Forest Service to learn how to safely collect garbage and micro-trash. They then spent half the day filling buckets with everything from dog feces and beer bottles to soda cans and cigarette butts that had been left at the creek at Red Rock Crossing.
“We picked up trash to help the environment so the river won’t get polluted,” said NPA student Matthew Morales, who added that he learned freshwater creeks like Oak Creek are a limited resource.
Even though the Red Rock Crossing area appeared clean and well-maintained, by the end of the day, the class was able to fill an extra-large garbage bag with trash left by people at the creek. Most of it, they said, consisted of small, everyday items that may not have seemed like much to the person who left them.
“Even if you think it’s just one piece of trash, if everybody thought that, the world would be totally covered with trash,” said NPA student Conner Wible.
On the way home, student Katelyn Coates reflected on the day.
“The hike was so beautiful,” she said. “I just hope it’s not going to get ruined by trash.”
Fellow student Pilar Carpenter called the trip inspiring.
“Every time I come here, I’m probably going to bring trash bags and pick up garbage,” she said. “I want it to be like a second job.”
That was sure to be good news for NPA seventh-grade science teacher Susan Brown, who designed the Oak Creek water sampling and cleanup field trip to tie in with the class’ science curriculum. She plans to continue the lesson by having the students dissect leaf packs that were placed in Oak Creek and Willow Bend’s reclaimed water pond so they can see the differences between the kinds of aquatic invertebrates that grow in fresh creek water versus reclaimed water.
She said bringing students to Oak Creek helps them learn about the environment and how they can affect it in a different way than just sitting in a classroom.
“They make a connection,” Brown said.