The Wahkiakum County Eagle - Established as The Skamokawa Eagle in 1891

Students practice science on the river


Diana Zimmerman

Jeff "Rook" Rooklidge looks on as Zach Brown, Jaiden Mahitka, Casey Wilson and James Anderson work on washing debris and plankton down the net and into the filter.

During high tide last Friday, Wahkiakum High School students in Jeff Rooklidge's Environmental Science class headed down to the city dock in Cathlamet to collect plankton.

Wahkiakum, along with four other schools along the Columbia River, Ilwaco High School, Washougal High School, Kelso High School, and iTech Preparatory High School in Vancouver, are participating in a research project organized by scientists at WSU Vancouver.

The original hypothesis of the project, according to Rooklidge, was that the concentration of pollution would grow larger as it moved downstream. Measuring plankton gives researchers some insight into the matter.

Once a month, the students in Rooklidge's class head down to the dock to do the collection. With little direction, the students already knew their tasks and were comfortable making things happen.

While Gage Horman used a secchi disk to determine turbidity, Zach Brown was checking the water depth and Thiago Monteiro was assessing pH. James Anderson filled a gallon jug with river water and Casey Wilson got the plankton net ready for action.

Finally, they were ready. Brown tossed the net in the water, and collection began.

"There is a flow meter on the net," Rooklidge explained. "They can ascertain the amount of volume going through the net, collect the plankton, and then correlate how much plankton there are per cubic meter going through the net. This net has tiny holes that allow the small plankton to pass through but the bigger stuff gets caught. We collect it and put it in the jars that Thiago has readied."

Some of the river water that Anderson had collected in a gallon jug had been poured into a squirt bottle now in Wilson's hands. After Brown pulled the net out of the water, Wilson began to wash plankton and debris down the net into the gray collection chamber at the bottom.

The container was handed to Evan Quigley who continued to filter the water through so that only plankton, debris, and sediment remained. The sample would be preserved in rubbing alcohol and eventually sent to WSU Vancouver.

Brown would be sending the net into the water a total of three times. Rooklidge reminded him to pull up the net with the same strength and speed each time.

Meanwhile, Monteiro put some river water into a container. It should contain micro plankton.

Izabel Lee walked around with a clipboard, writing down the information being shouted at her from all directions.

"She's got 15 people yelling at her at once," Rooklidge laughed. "She has to keep track of it all. She's a good multitasker, it's a really hard job."

Horman checked salinity and temperature as Jaiden Mahitka looked on.

"We are still considered part of the estuary, because estuary by definition is all the area of the river that is affected by tidal influence," Rooklidge said. "So on a high tide we obviously get water push from the ocean but we don't receive enough salt, by definition from their lab, to be measurable. Ilwaco is showing lots of salt, but we are showing no measurable amount."

"We are looking at the different temperatures at the different levels of strata," he added. "It's interesting what areas of the river, how much temperature drop you get as you go to the bottom versus the surface. And that is telling a little bit about mixing of water and tides. They can correlate that with types of plankton that are showing up. A lot of them are not swimmers, but they do an excellent job of migrating up and down. During the day they will migrate up to photosynthesize, and a lot of times in the evening they will go down because there is no opportunity for making food."

Rooklidge asked the students for their impressions of the current environment.

Slight chop, Mahitka said. "About 50 percent cloud cover. 10-15 mph breeze."

"So far in Cathlamet our nutrient level with nitrates and phosphates which can cause harmful algal blooms have been really low," Rooklidge said. "Is it because we are a small community? Is it because the fact that we don't have the huge dairy farms any more? Is it because there aren't a lot of people? Probably a combination of a lot of things. They were also curious about the effect of the timberland in Wahkiakum County, how that would affect watershed, coming down the slopes."

"Plankton samples have been pretty typical, though they are seeing some invasive species coming in ballast tanks in ships that are worrisome," he added. "They are asking the question, how will that affect the whole food chain? How is that impacting the fish and the whole ecosystem?"

Earlier this year, students talked about whether there might be more value in doing the collection on the other side of the island, nearer the shipping channel. An attempt was made, but they couldn't find a safe enough place for the students where they could also get the net down in the water more than seven feet.

"They learned that in science, when you are doing research, you have all these mitigating factors that can influence your data," Rooklidge said.

They had to work with what they had.

Diana Zimmerman

Gage Horman used a Secchi Disk to assess turbidity at the Cathlamet town dock.

"Being able to do this is fun," Mahitka said. "We get to learn what is in our waters, how much pollution. It's cool to be able to do this and send it off to a lab and hear the results."

"I feel like any time I get to get out of the classroom, I can learn a lot better," Horman said. "I think it's cool that we get to help them out and do some hands on learning."

"The school district was really awesome to us, this class," Rooklidge said. "Environmental science was formed for the student who loved the outdoors and thrived with hands on learning."

Not only is WSU Vancouver giving Wahkiakum students a real life learning opportunity, they also purchased a lot of the equipment needed for the project and gave it to the school.

Students from all five schools involved in the study will attend a symposium later this year at WSU Vancouver with graduate students to look at the science.


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