Oakland students participating in the East Bay Academy for Young Scientists program this summer didn’t just learn about ecology, scientific measurement, and creek restoration. They informed the city about unknown pollution levels in a creek that meanders through residential sections of the city.
Using ecological monitoring techniques such as testing the water for levels of nitrates and dissolved oxygen, and counting the numbers of macroinvertebrates, the students found unnaturally high levels of nitrates and traces of chlorine, leading them to suspect a sewage leak into the creek.
They informed the City’s Public Works Department which in turn began its own monitoring and corrective action of looking for a sewage pipe leak to close off.
“We were testing and we found high amounts of nitrates. It is possible it could be sewage,” said Thomas Pham, one of the Oakalnd students.
The EBAYS student groups have been working at Courtland Creek for two years and monitoring its health. Over those two years, the students found consistent levels of nitrates in the creek at 40 parts per million. Instructor Tony Marks-Block said that level is toxic to most aquatic life.
Student Assad Zareef said the group proceeded to count macro invertebrates, testing how many would be found in a certain cubic foot of water. Their low number was another indicator something was wrong. “We tested the water and were making sure it was safe for animals,” he said, and found it is likely not.
East Bay Academy for Young Scientists is a program of the Lawrence Hall of Science that trains students from low-income neighborhoods in the tools of science. For the past two summers, students have been working to restore Oakland’s Courtland Creek, which runs through East Oakland from the Oakland Hills.
Instructor Humberto Bracho of EBAYS said the students drafted a letter to the City’s Public Works Department describing their findings and data from the water measurement. Public Works officials responded and sent out staff to investigate and search for the source of the pollution, and asked students to present their findings with other city workers.
Here is a synopsis of their study from the Lawrence Hall of Science:
“We had students create and implement a plan to give to the city and Public Works department employees came out and heard their suggestions,” Bracho said. He said the fact that Courtland Creek runs through many of the students’ neighborhoods made it all the more important to the youth.
One of the goals of the EBAYS is to help high school students “see science in a new way,” in which their own hands-on work in science can bring an improvement to their community, said Marks-Block. Counting benthic macroinvertebrates and analyzing the water for levels of nitrates and dissolved oxygen are two important indicators of the creek’s capacity to support and sustain life, he said.
Zareef, who will begin his junior year at MetWest High School next week, said he “definitely would like to do more” of this work.