What’s in the water? Animas High School students take a closer look

Saturday, Jan. 27, 2018 11:40 AM
Sadie Vance, a junior at Animas High School, explains the characteristics of the fish her mother, Beth Vance, caught and how it is affected by metal contaminants. Sadie and 64 other AHS students presented their projects on the study of water quality as part of their chemistry class.
Luke Mick, an Animas High School junior, demonstrates characteristics of caddisfly larvae. He studied caddisfly populations as part of a project about water quality in the Animas River with his partner, Marilyn Short, also an AHS junior. More than 60 AHS chemistry students presented their projects Thursday at the Powerhouse Science Center.
Marilyn Short, an Animas High School junior, says she was surprised by how much life is in the Animas River. She conducted a study of how the Gold King Mine spill affected caddisfly populations with her partner, Luke Mick, also an Animas High junior. Sixty-five AHS chemistry students presented projects Thursday at the Powerhouse Science Center.

Marilyn Short and Luke Mick are gumshoes of sorts: They’re trying to solve the mystery of why the Animas River near Silverton has more caddisflies than would be expected after the Gold King Mine spill.

Sadie Vance, Abby Allsopp and Faith Mewmaw created an interactive fishing game where anglers using a yardstick converted to a fishing pole can test their luck catching wood cutouts of fish and attendant pollutants and heavy metals found in the Animas River.

Ryan Colley, Chole Walsh and Cole Elliott devised an interactive video game where players can learn how the upgrade to the wastewater-treatment plant at Santa Rita will cleanse the urban waste stream so it can be safely returned to the Animas.

They were among 65 Animas High School juniors in Steve Smith’s chemistry class who plunged into a subject that brings nervous jitters to many a former high-schooler as they delved into the world of ionic and covalent bonds and spectroscopy through the lens of studying water quality.

On Thursday evening at the Powerhouse Science Center, students presented projects from their study of water quality in the Animas River. About 150 people attended.

“Students get exposed to water quality in this town, and this allowed them to look at the issue in a different manner,” Smith said.

The students, he said, spent about two weeks on the projects, and the city of Durango and Mountain Studies Institute partnered with Short during the unit.

Beth Vance, Sadie’s mother, went fishing at her daughter’s faux fishing hole. She landed a bluegill with concentrations of iron in it.

Abby informed Sadie’s mother about her catch: “Bluegills are found in tributaries of the Animas, and iron in high concentrations can affect the fish, and in high enough concentrations it is toxic, but right now the river’s good,” she said.

Chole, who joined Ryan and Cole in creating a video game based on upgrades to the wastewater-treatment plant at Santa Rita, said the city of Durango helped with research – and even provided a tour.

“We were introduced to how the water-treatment plant works. We were able to ask questions. It really helped me more than a basic lecture,” Chole said of her group’s Santa Rita tour.

The trio’s video game is only in its rudimentary stages, and the students want to develop more levels: As players advance, they gain more knowledge of the chemistry behind processes as wastewater moves through treatment stages before its eventual return to the Animas.

When asked if the trio could, on its own, do the necessary work to complete the video game, Ryan said, “If we had more time, I think we’d get decently close.”

Cole said the chemistry proved relatively easy to understand; the hard part of video game development was getting the game to operate properly on all three members’ laptops.

Marilyn’s study of caddisflies left one big impression: “I was surprised by how much life is in the river that I didn’t even know about.”

“Microinvertebrates are useful in determining water quality,” Luke said, adding he was stumped why the Animas near Silverton has more caddisflies than expected based on its water composition.

“No one really knows what’s up,” he said.