Water agency program trains Sonoma State University students in conservation

  • Sonoma State University senior Chase Takajo uses a GPS device to find a location for a sediment trap in Copeland Creek on the SSU campus on Thursday, April 25, 2013. (BETH SCHLANKER / The Press Democrat)

The Sonoma County Water Agency is adding more than $200,000 to a program to train Sonoma State University students to be the next generation of conservationists and water engineers.

The Sonoma County Board of Supervisors approved the plan last week, extending a one-year pilot project for three more years and allocating up to $68,000 annually to the initiative.

“This is a wonderful program because students entering college are increasingly disconnected from personal experiences with the natural world,” said Supervisor Shirlee Zane, whose district includes SSU. “We also know that this generation of university graduates will be asked to struggle with significant demands of climate change, pollution and declining biodiversity.”

The program began last year with a $48,000 grant to the university to integrate various Water Agency-related research projects into classes across the university. Early issues included studying Copeland Creek, which runs through the campus, to examine various types of contamination and how sediment moves along the stream bed, which is unusually prone to silting up.

One goal was to develop “the critical thinking skills coming out of it,” said Claudia Luke, coordinator of the program and manager of SSU's three land preserves. “Real-world problems are not neat and tidy; they force you to think through things.”

One of the most interesting projects was to determine the rate at which sediment accumulates in the headwaters of the creek, she said. Students took a sample of the sediment in the bottom of a marsh in the university-owned Fairfield Osborn Preserve. They located a layer of radioactive material left over from the era when the United States and the Soviet Union were testing nuclear weapons by setting off bombs.

Knowing that such open-air testing was banned in 1963, the students were able to calculate the rate of sediment accumulation by measuring how much had settled on top of that radioactive layer. That knowledge could help the Water Agency plan for maintenance projects to control silt in the flood control channels downstream.

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