Conservation Corner: Watery rite of passage

By Sarah Garcia
Reader Columnist

The annual Pend Oreille Water Festival has been a rite of passage for the youth of Bonner county for the past 24 years. In mid-May the quiet community of Laclede buzzes to life with the enthusiasm of fifth-grade students learning to appreciate, respect, protect and conserve our area’s water resources. Over a two-day period approximately 475 students from public and private schools attend this engaging outdoor hands-on learning experience. Bonner Soil & Water Conservation District and the Army Corp of Engineers co-sponsor the Pend Oreille Water Festival which is graciously hosted at the Army Corp’s Riley Creek Campground on the banks of the Pend Oreille River. 

Attendees at the Pend Oreille Water Festival in Laclede. Courtesy photo.

The annual Water Festival is a highlight each year and allows students an opportunity to take learning out of the classroom and into nature. Approximately 240 students per day rotate through six different stations. Each day about 35 volunteers from organizations such as Bonner SWCD, The Lakes Commission, Pack river Watershed Council, U.S. Forest Service, Idaho Fish & Game, Panhandle Health, Glahe & Associates, Kaniksu Land Trust along with individual volunteers serve as educators and event volunteers. John Hastings, a science teacher at SHS, coordinates a group of approximately 30 student volunteers who assist as group guides and instructor aides. The work begins months in advance as grant applications are prepared; in the weeks prior to the event the festival coordinator, Gail Bolin, visits each class to provide an interactive watershed presentation which heightens the student’s excitement for the upcoming Festival. 

Each station’s hands-on activity is designed to engage students in the conversation about how they can both appreciate, utilize and protect our areas resources with an emphasis on our water resources. Students gather close to touch animal pelts and observe the era clothing the fur trapper educators wear while learning how this industry drove Idaho’s economy during that time. The hum of excitement can be heard through the forest as the orienteering teams head out on a scavenger hunt. This fun adventure teaches the students to use a compass as well as how to draw and understand maps. The animal tracks station is a favorite for many; educators share key indicators that set apart different animal tracks and how these differences benefit each animal. Students leave this station with bandannas they customized with animal prints. Squeals carry across the lawn as students visit the water quality station and learn about the characteristics of different aquatic macroinvertebrates through hands on discovery of bugs. Moving onto the watershed station students participate in an experiment demonstrating what happens when source and non-point source pollutants are introduced to the environment, how this impacts our watershed and what each person can do to minimize negative impacts. The opening question of the fisheries station is met with incredulous laughter as IDFG’s presenter pushes for the answer of, “How do you give a fish CPR?” Students touch and observe multiple fish species while learning key species identifiers and what makes them unique. 

The festival wraps up with a birds-of-prey program. Here students get to observe the nuances of these large birds of prey up close. Owls, falcons and a golden eagle were among the guests this year. Many students and adults alike were surprised to learn that the peregrine falcon in front of them holds the title for fastest animal, with diving speeds of over 200 MPH vs. a cheetah’s top speed of 70 MPH. 

The Water Festival was started by Tri-State Water Quality Council in 1996, when they closed in 2012 Bonner SWCD took on the program to ensure this important educational event would continue for the students of Bonner County. Gail was hired as the festival coordinator the same year and has done a wonderful job of expanding the festival. 

This is annual event is funded solely by grants and community donations. Would you like more information about how you can participate, volunteer or support the Water Festival in the future? Please feel free to reach out with questions to [email protected] We look forward to seeing the youth of Bonner County at the 25th annual Water Festival in May of 2020! 

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