The water was still numbingly cold when four St. Columba Catholic School students splashed into the Animas River behind Durango High School carrying plastic bottles.
Under the eye of teacher Lu Boren, they gathered their monthly water samples for RiverWatch, a Colorado Parks and Wildlife program designed to monitor water quality.
About 140 groups throughout Colorado students and adult volunteers use the same procedures to test water quality each month in the states seven hydrological basins. The program started in 1989.
The data gathered is available online to anyone who wants it, said Barb Horn, who has coordinated RiverWatch from the beginning.
We monitor more stations (for water quality) than the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, Horn said.
The St. Columba students recorded water temperature and air temperature. Then, back in their laboratory, they analyzed samples for pH, alkalinity, dissolved oxygen and hardness. The information was uploaded to the state Parks and Wildlife website.
Other samples taken at the same time were sent to a laboratory in Fort Collins, where theyre analyzed for 13 metals (aluminum, arsenic, cadmium, calcium, copper, iron, lead, manganese, magnesium, potassium, selenium, sodium and zinc) and six nutrients (ammonia, chloride, nitrate/nitrite, sulfate, total phosphorus and total suspended solids).
The program works because its not a regulatory agency, Horn said. Were not out to nail anyone. We just produce useful information.
St. Columba students are the only youngsters currently monitoring Animas River water quality for RiverWatch.
The group isnt afraid to go above and beyond in the name of science. During their July outing, four older students and three chaperones spent the night in sleeping bags at the fish hatchery to sample water and record data every two hours until dawn Saturday.
When a mixup in analyzing the dissolved oxygen occurred Saturday morning, the students, like conscientious scientists, threw out the results and returned to the river for a fresh sample.
Boren incorporates the water testing into seventh-grade science, which last year involved 13 students.
This kind of science captures all kids, Boren said. Book science captures only some.
Fiona McAliney, William Barney, Calvin Mulcahy and Ava Scribner who were seventh-graders last year did the July testing. Carlie Brown and twin sister Sophia, who are in seventh grade this school year, and Sadie McAliney, an entering sixth-grader, tagged along to see how its is done.