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Shoal Lake students learn to be river scientists

School program to test Oak River water brings positive results

Michael Bighetty (l to r), Ethan Hunter, Dylan Stebeleski and Orin McKay, were among the students
testing the water quality of the Oak River.

Issues stemming from the health and level of the lake, have been as concerning to a group of students and their teacher at the Shoal Lake School, as they are to landowners and recreational users. While the Grade 7/8 students let municipal and provincial officials settle the course of action on the level of Shoal Lake, they focused on the body of water flowing into it one day in May as part of the River Watch program.

The students, under the direction of Kent Lewarne of Pilot Mound, co-ordinator of the South Central Eco Institute’s program, learned about the good and the bad of waterways, and the importance of watersheds. The River Watch program works in partnership with the Upper Assiniboine River Conservation District, along with other conservation districts in the province.

What was taught in the classroom, by teacher Benita Shwaluk, prior to the outdoor class impressed Lewarne, a chemistry teacher himself. Interested in water quality, Shwaluk has been involved with programs at both Fort Whyte Alive in Winnipeg and Oak Hammock Marsh in the Stonewall area.

“Learning of the River Watch program from Jay Toews (owner of Toews Environmental Ltd.), as well as Amanda Benson from the Caring for Our Watershed (CFOW) contest, both routes have cast a wealth of information, in how schools can be involved,” said Shwaluk. “Outdoor education touches on various aspects, promoting sustainable living through hands-on experiences of the natural world.”

Looking into environmental solutions, the students focused on water monitoring, testing the water for clarity, temperature, depth, and oxygen levels.

Using a variety of apparatuses, it was learned the depth of the Oak River is slightly over a metre, the pH level of 8.2 was well within the levels of other Manitoba rivers (ranging from 7.5 to 9.4), and oxygen tests produced results of 5.0 to 10, with students settling on a measurement of 6.98.

“The students are realizing some things need to be in bodies of water, others not so much,” said Lewarne. “Green algae blooms at Rock Lake in my neck of the woods, and in Shoal Lake in past years, is detrimental to the health of a lake, as are zebra mussels and Asian carp noted down south.”

Working in partnership with conservation districts across the province including the Upper Assiniboine River and Little Saskatchewan River within this area, along with funding from Enbridge, Lewarne said it would otherwise be extremely difficult to present this type of program, and put together a collection of data to compare testing.

The CFOW contest, put on by Oak Hammock Marsh Interpretive Centre, has also presented an avenue in which students learn how to preserve and improve their local watersheds. Under the guidance of Shwaluk, real-life skills including researching, planning, budgeting, and written and verbal communication, serve as part of the program. Most importantly, the program teaches students that they can make a difference, as young minds often hold the key to innovations that can protect and improve local watersheds.

“My students were really excited by the task of coming up with ideas on their own that could better our community and our watershed,” Shwaluk said. “Ideas included building rain gardens, cleaning up garbage in and around the lake, garbage filters, phosphorus treatment, making cigarette butt containers for around town, and planting trees to retain storm water.”

Although this time around no entries from Shoal Lake placed, CFOW will assist in implementing one of the projects in the near future.

Fort Whyte Alive and Oak Hammock Marsh are known as natural oasis settings, offering engaging and educational fun for all ages. Through education, knowledge, and a caring attitude, the watershed of Shoal Lake, can enrich for generations to come if the water quality is monitored and addressed if needed.

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