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Thousands of schoolkids each year who study the Russian River watershed and the system through which it provides drinking water to North Bay residents will soon be free of the shabby portable building in Forestville that for more than a decade has served as a classroom and field-study lab.

Final approvals are in the works for a $2 million facility planned near Wohler Bridge that will provide a safer, sturdier and more welcoming place to learn about a resource so necessary to life, officials said.

No more razor wire visible out the window at the current, industrial-looking site across the river near two water collection wells. No more drooping ceiling tiles, rainwater leaks and porta-potties for visiting fifth-graders to worry about.

"We're really excited about the new facility, and about the program," said Cary Olin, water education manager for the Sonoma County Water Agency.

Officials hope to break ground late this summer and have the new building and surrounding site ready for use by the 2015-16 school year, agency engineer Brian Paulson said.

The project is to be located on the site of a onetime rock quarry near the corner of Westside and Wohler roads, adjacent to the Maxwell Grove boat ramp operated by Sonoma County Regional Parks.

It includes two single-story buildings connected by a covered walkway and surrounded by functional landscaping like a bio swale to catch and filter runoff and a native garden designed to attract beneficial insects.

Pathways through the redwood grove lead down to the riverbank, where students will collect water samples to test for pH levels and examine under microscopes for resident invertebrate species.

Plans include a small outdoor amphitheater to be built at the base of a tall, vertical rock road left over from the quarry days.

The new facility will be used for occasional community meetings and teacher trainings, and as a gathering spot for regular public water system tours provided by the water agency. But it will serve primarily in the popular Field Study Program through which the agency hosted 73fifth-grade classes, or about 2,100 students, from 35 schools during the 2012-13 school year, Olin said.

Schools enter a lottery to have their fifth-graders participate in the program, part of an expanding educational lineup for students of varying ages provided by the water agency to local schools.

It includes a classroom visit followed by a full-day field studies trip that since the mid-1990s has been based out of successive modular buildings just north of the east end of Wohler Bridge, where the water agency maintains two collection pumps and other machinery.

The field day includes study of the watershed environment and its stewardship, examination of regional water transmission and storage, and the system through which water is collected, purified and conveyed to consumers, as well as instruction on the life cycle of threatened salmonid fish species that play a role in management of North Coast waterways.

The program is aligned with state science standards and is designed to encourage inquiry and critical thinking, Olin said.

The water education programs are part of the agency's conservation mission, built into the rates paid by municipalities and other consumer providers. Grant funding comes into play as well.

The building project is being designed in a way that should beautify the weed-sown former quarry site, county and agency personnel said. It should bring no more traffic into the rural neighborhood than already comes into the current site across Wohler Bridge and some 1,300 feet away, they said.

But after several community meetings and efforts to consider neighbors' concerns, the proposed driveway has been moved farther from the intersection of Westside and Wohler roads to ease congestion.

The agency also has agreed to install large boulders and berms along Wohler Road to discourage unsafe parking on the narrow roadway by Maxwell Grove users seeking to escape the parking fee in the lot.

"I think we've done our due diligence," west Sonoma County Supervisor Efren Carrillo said. "I really believe the community neighbors and anyone who learns about this really is going to find that this is absolutely a wonderful project when it comes to education.

"In fact, you will see a positive impact on the site," Carrillo said.

You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 521-5249 or mary.callahan@pressdemocrat.com.

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