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.

In the first year, 473 students participated in classes that did research for the Water Agency. With the three-year extension, the university hopes to involve about 1,500 students.

The money from the Water Agency, drawn from a pot of property tax money dedicated to flood control projects, funds materials and other expenses for class research projects, and pays part of Luke's time as she coordinates projects across the university.

The Water Agency is already reaping tangible benefits from the program. In addition to the information the first students gathered about Copeland Creek, the agency has hired one of the early students. Former student Chase Takajo is working as a seasonal employee in the agency's stream maintenance program and is in discussions about finding a full-time position.

The agency research projects, he said, were pivotal to helping him choose to pursue a conservation-related career, he said.

"You can do as much work as you want in a classroom," he said, "but sometimes you need to get out in the field and have real life experiences. That's kind of more valuable in many ways than reading a book."

In addition to creating a pipeline for agency workers, the program is offering the agency a chance to answer some interesting questions that it does not have the time or resources to do with its own staff, said Keenan Foster, principle environmental specialist.

For example, he is hoping SSU students will help with experiments on plants the agency would like to encourage in the 75 miles of flood control channels and 300 miles of modified streams it manages in the area. The students can help determine which plants are best-suited to resisting the advance of blackberries and cattails, which tend to capture dirt and debris and clog the flood channels.

Although the students are amateurs at science, he said, they can develop useful data and answer nagging questions that the agency cannot afford to use its own people to study. The grant to SSU is an inexpensive way to recruit extra hands.

"We've got a lot of expertise here at the agency addressing these problems," he said, "but we don't have an unlimited amount of money."

(You can reach Staff Writer Sean Scully at 521-5313 or sean.scully@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @BeerCountry.)