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El Camino Creek fifth graders prepare to collect water samples at the mouth of Batiquitos Lagoon, next to Coast Highway 101. After collecting samples at their campus throughout the year, they’ll complete a plan for managing stormwater. Photo courtesy of Bill Dean
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First-of-its-kind program has EUSD students tracking stormwater

CARLSBAD — Fifth-graders at El Camino Creek Elementary wiggled, gyrated and twisted inside a classroom last week. The reason: it was perfectly sunny outside, and they figured a rain dance was in order. 

Once precipitation falls for at least an hour during class times, they’ll grab their field equipment, head outside, huddle around stormwater circling drains and test for pollutants.

It’s all part of stormwater monitoring program, the first of its kind, that launched at El Camino Creek and La Costa Heights this fall, said Bill Dean, who heads the program.

By the spring, the students will have enough water samples to put together a plan with recommendations for managing campus stormwater. Then, they’ll present the plan to the Encinitas Union School District Board of Trustees at the end of the year.

“The whole class will be up there presenting information that the district can actually put into practice,” Dean said.

The fifth-graders got a crash course in the importance of monitoring stormwater during a field trip last month. It started when they hopped on a bus and followed the path stormwater takes from their respective campuses to an outfall at Batiquitos Lagoon.

By tracing the journey, they learned firsthand how stormwater infrastructure funnels runoff into creeks and rivers, and then to the ocean. During the process, industrial waste and other pollutants get caught in the runoff and can cause environmental damage.

The students also took samples at different stops during the field trip to measure for pollutants. From there, they took coolers with the samples to Encina Wastewater Authority. After a tour, scientists at the agency provided the kids with an overview of how professionals analyze water quality.

Kevin Hardy, general manager of Encina, said he hopes the lesson sparked an interest in science, and maybe a career or two in stormwater prevention.

“At the local and state level, there’s more interest in stormwater prevention,” Hardy said. “I see a career path for students in the future.”

“What they’re doing is real-world stuff,” Hardy added.

And Encina, which donated staff time and equipment to the program, isn’t done analyzing EUSD water samples.

Last week at El Camino Creek, teams of fifth-graders, with roles ranging from equipment supervisor to data supervisor to videographer, conducted a mock stormwater test around campus to prep for stormy days.

When it actually does rain during school, they’ll take samples of stormwater from five campus drains, on three separate days. Those samples will be sent to Encina for analysis. After those results are released, the students will graph the findings, identifying if pollutants are too high and where they might be coming from. Then, they’ll put together a list of observations and recommendations for the EUSD Board of Trustees.

“Recommendations might be, for example, putting screens on drains or put in swales,” Dean said.

Dean said the pilot program is going beyond the current requirements for stormwater testing. State and federal laws require schools and large developments to put together stormwater prevention plans that map out how to cut down on contaminates like fertilizer at the source.

“We’re going to go beyond just filling out the forms and doing a punch list,” Dean said. “We’re actually going to test and find out what’s going on, and create measures to reduce it.”

Previously, Dean taught a financial literacy class where students put forward business plans. Knowing that students can tackle complex subjects, and with his experience crafting stormwater prevention plans, Dean floated the idea of the program to the district last school year.

“Kids aren’t just sponges of information, they’re resources,” Dean said.

Dean said the students are likely to retain what they learn thanks to the hands-on experience of taking samples and evaluating the results.

“We aren’t talking to them for an hour during an assembly about stormwater,” Dean said. “They do this.”

John Brown, a fifth-grade teacher at El Camino Creek Elementary, said the stormwater program dovetails with new Common Core education standards, which emphasize critical thinking.

“The students are taking information from different sources and analyzing it,” Brown said.

“What’s exciting is that we’re in the same boat as the students — we don’t know what the test results will be,” Brown added. “There’s no set answer.”

Although the program is only at two schools right now, it could be headed for more.

“We like that it’s putting the students in real-life situations,” said EUSD Superintendent Tim Baird, adding that the district is eyeing expanding the program to all of its nine schools.