Nebraska high schoolers collecting data on creek win Master Conservationist Award

September 24, 2018

For the past 16 summers, high schoolers from the small town of Newman Grove, Nebraska, have been sloshing through nearby Shell Creek to gather valuable data about the health of the waterway.

Under the guidance of teachers Mark Seier, Danielle Amen and Kylie Sweeter, Newman Grove sophomores, juniors and seniors volunteer portions of their summer to the Shell Creek Watershed program. The group collects data about water quality and quantity to help farmers and conservationists in the area southwest of Norfolk better understand what can be done to improve the state of the watershed.

Their work has landed them The World-Herald’s 2018 Master Conservationist Award in the youth category. The award was established in 1983 “to recognize those who have excelled in soil and water conservation and protection.”

The monitoring program has influenced producers to make such significant changes to their practices that in 2017 the Shell Creek Watershed became the only stream to be delisted from the Environmental Protection Agency’s impaired waters list.

Herbicide levels in the creek decreased dramatically and wildlife became abundant once again after farmers implemented more no-till and minimum-till farming practices, built buffers, and planted more cover crops to help reduce flooding.

Seier said the program started in 2002 because farmers downstream in the Schuyler, Nebraska, area were noticing an increase in flooding, pollution and erosion, and concerned community members wanted to learn more about how to reverse those changes.

“As kids started studying the water, the water quality became a concern,” Seier said. “They came to understand that water quality and quantity went hand in hand; as you improve the flooding problem and keep the water on the land through various farming practices, then the water quality will improve as well.”

Students spend two days each in May, June, July and August tracking the quantity and quality of the water through a series of tests, including measuring water temperature, pH and the levels of dissolved oxygen, fecal coliform and sediment.

“I really make the effort to explain to (students) that this is a science project,” Seier said. “We’re not pointing fingers, writing policy or even affecting policy. We’re collecting data.”

Students present their findings twice a year to groups of adult sponsors such as the Lower North Platte Natural Resources District and the Shell Creek Watershed Improvement Group, as well as concerned members of the community.

The NRD plays a major role in funding the program and has made it possible for students to use advanced technology for their project, such as overhead drones that allow students to compare Shell Creek to other watersheds .

This year, 17 students participated in the program. That not only represents over 80 percent of the high school’s population, Seier said, but it also included nine students who had already graduated from Newman Grove. Since 2002, 111 students have participated, and they keep coming back.

“That’s the thing that has kept this project going,” Seier said. “When the kids spend their summers out there collecting the data and putting their presentations together, the adults want to know what they have to say.”

Recent Newman Grove graduate Abbey Pieke became interested in the program in high school because her older sisters had participated, but she became a leader herself and continued participating after she graduated last year. She studies agriculture education at Northeast Community College in Norfolk, Nebraska, because she hopes to start her own environmental awareness project some day.

“My grandfather grew up playing in the Shell Creek, but I never got that opportunity,” Pieke said. “I want my kids to have the same opportunity my grandfather did to play in the creek and have a blast with the water quality the way it was.”

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