Environmental education for tribal students
By John Bianchini
Special to the Observer
FLAGSTAFF — The Colorado River has not flowed into the ocean in years since the proliferation of the modern cities like Los Angeles, Las Vegas and Phoenix.
Industries of power consume natural resources from the Southwest, making the difficult conditions of people living on northern Arizona reservations even more strenuous.
Established by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to overcome these obstacles, the Institute for Tribal Environmental Professionals (ITEP) set out in 1992 to assist tribal communities in environmental education and resource management. An educational arm of this organization titled the Environmental Education Outreach Program (EEOP) is located at Northern Arizona University (NAU) in Flagstaff.
From this hub of the Southwest, EEOP
reaches out to Native American schools with the purpose of attracting
students to environmental careers so they might later be able to help
solve environmental problems affecting their communities.
“EEOP programs are designed to educate on issues relevant to the southwest; teaching people how to apply math, science and technology to addressing local environmental issues,” said EEOP Director Mansel Nelson.
The Summer Scholars Program of EEOP is popular with students because it takes them out of the classroom and puts them in the field. This immersion of seeing outdoor examples of what they are learning, makes a difference according to students and sponsors. To keep this program going, EEOP receives funding from the EPA and the National Science Foundation. Another sponsor of EEOP is Sustainability of semi-Arid Hydrology & Riparian Areas (SAHRA)—a scientific organization encompassing multiple government and private organizations concerned about water. Schools participating in Summer Scholars also contribute funds to the program.
Students participating in the Summer Scholars program of 2003 came from Tuba City Junior High School, Shonto Preparatory Academy and schools in the San Juan School District.
Upon the arrival of students each week, they were asked—should reclaimed water be used for snowmaking on the San Francisco Peaks? Before students answered this question, they learned about water quality, water contamination and wastewater treatment.
Summer Scholars drove to Arizona Snowbowl on the San Francisco Peaks to hear from Snowbowl Manager JR Murray about why that he felt it was important to expand the ski resort. After he spoke, Ken Fredrick, Coconino National Forest Public Affairs officer, spoke to the students about the National Environmental Policy Act and how the Forest Service must balance the needs of many people concerning what happens with the mountain.
“The mountain is well known as a place of religious and cultural significance to a number of American Indian tribes in the southwest…the mountain also provides outdoor recreation opportunities that are important to the public’s quality of life and the areas tourism industry.” Frederick said. Students enjoyed the beauty of the mountain, but they really liked getting in the water at Oak Creek to test it. They tested water for turbidity, pH, dissolved oxygen, conductivity and temperature. At the end of the week, test results were compared between stream water and that coming from a water treatment plant.
Students spend a day touring City of Flagstaff Rio de Flag Water Treatment Facility and testing water in a nearby wash where the reclaimed water is discharged into the ecosystem.
“I learned how the bacteria liked waste to clean the water. In the dome, the wastewater was bubbling to make air, keeping the organisms alive,” Summer Scholar student Autumn Drake said.
A student from Tuba City Jr. High, Brittany Pete said, “I learned that some people were concerned about all the wildlife that use the riparian corridor along the Rio, which includes everything from ducks and raccoons to elk.”
Plant Operator Bill Case of the Rio de Flag facility, walked students through the stages of water treatment, explaining to them the function of each area. Case gives the students a story to remember holding a Mr. Potato Head and showing them a box of random objects that ended up in a bar screen at the plant. More importantly, he also tells a brief history concerning the Clean Water Act of 1972 and how bad some waterways were in this country before the law was passed.
Case said in the warmer months, the city sells most of its reclaimed water to Flagstaff’s many golf courses. Secondary users of the treated water are schools and parks, which use it for watering their grass.
“In my personal opinion, I would like to see reclaimed water-use for the public, have priority over private uses like golf courses because the money used to build and operate these facilities comes from public funds.” Case said.
Flagstaff has supported two wastewater treatment plants since the 1980s, for cleaning water from sewage to be release back into the environment. The Rio de Flag treatment facility produces “Class A+” water that meets Arizona Department of Environmental Quality requirements to be used for specific purposes ranging from irrigation of food crops to snowmaking.
In the winter months, the reclaimed water is sent into the Rio de Flag wash, which local hydrologist and NAU instructor, Abe Springer said could recharge underground aquifers; although, he also says more studies are necessary to find out about the aquifer. Another local hydrologist and NAU instructor, Dr. Aregai Tecle agreed with Springer.
“We should use the Rio de Flag reclaimed water for recharge and find out where the
is going.” Tecle said.
Tecle speaks with the Summer Scholars about the importance of water because he said he wants to help Native American students become interested in going to college. He is aware of the imbalance of school resources on the reservation compared to the average American public school. Tecle said the Summer Scholars program is a good way to restore the balance.
“Here it is—the scientific method they are learning…to engross their interests in academics, that way they have something to aspire for.” Tecle said.
The conclusions of Summer Scholar decisions on snowmaking are on the website: www4.nau.edu/eeop/summerscholars/index.html.
For additional information on EEOP involvement, contact Mansel Nelson at 928-523-1496 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
(John Bianchini is a staff reporter for the Lumberjack at Northern Arizona University.)