Quick dip; Students join Friends of the Rouge to sample and test river water

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Photo by Sue Suchyta
Crestwood High School environmental science teacher Diana Johns (left) explains a Rouge River water sampling procedure to students Sean Henderson (second from left), 15; Ali Hadi, 15; Rama Alkhatib, 16; Mariam Mohsen, 16; and Fatima Al-Rasool, 15, May 7 at Parr Recreation Area on Hines Drive in Dearborn Heights.

By SUE SUCHYTA
Times-Herald Newspapers

HEIGHTS – Crestwood High School Advanced Placement Environmental Science students helped Friends of the Rouge May 7 by collecting water samples to add to the ongoing database monitoring Rouge River health.

The Friends of the Rouge, a non-profit 501(c)(3) organization, formed in 1986 to raise awareness about the need to clean up the Rouge River.

Crestwood science teacher Diana Johns said her students have been testing Rouge River water for 27 years at Parr Recreation Area on Hines Drive near Telegraph Road.

“We are taking a look at how the river has changed over time,” Johns said. “We have measured the same parameters for 27 years. So it is kind of a neat thing for the kids to be able to compare the data from year to year and see what trends developed.”

She said the Rouge still has a long way to go, but they have seen improvements since they began monitoring the health of the river.

“When we first starting doing this there were actual sewage outflows and so after a big storm like this you would see raw sewage actually going into the Rouge,” Johns said. “That doesn’t happen anymore. It’s not perfect, but we have seen some improvements.”

She said phosphorus runoff from lawn fertilization and detergents present a threat to the river that some Great Lakes watershed states address with regulation.

Phosphorus causes rapid and excessive blue-green algae growth. This makes water unsuitable for boating and swimming, and prevents the growth of rooted plants that fish use for food and shelter. When large amounts of algae die and sink, bacterial decomposition uses oxygen that fish and other creatures need to survive.

Mariam Mohsen, 16, said nitrate runoff from fertilizer from an upstream golf course causes too much algae growth, creating dead zones in water when wildlife do not have enough oxygen to survive.

Mira Chahine, 15, took river water samples to determine how much dissolved oxygen is in it, since a river without enough dissolved oxygen is an unhealthy environment for wildlife.

She also took samples to measure the pH — the concentration of hydrogen — a measure of the acidity or basicity (alkalinity) of an aqueous solution.

The pH of pure water is close to 7, with solutions less than 7 said to be acidic, and those higher, alkaline. The scale is from 0 to 14, with 6.5 to 8.5 considered a normal range. Acid rain can increase water acidity, which is harmful to immature fish and insects, and speeds the leaching of heavy metals in the water, which are harmful to fish.

Water temperature also affects pH: as water temperature increases, pH goes down, and vice versa. Thermal pollution, water discharged into a river, can affect its temperature, as can particulates in the water that absorb heat from sunlight.

Chahine said getting out in the field and sampling helps students apply what they learn in class. She said she would encourage other students to take the AP Environmental class.

“It helps people learn a lot, and I feel like it gets more interactive with everyone,” Chahine said. “Helping the environment is something, especially within the community and getting involved with the class. You can do it easily.”

Sean Henderson, 15, said seeing the river and sampling water helps reinforce classroom learning.

“Water is really important to everything in life, so that is why we need to keep it clean and safe for everybody,” Henderson said.

Marlene Bandy, an environmental engineer with the General Motors Romulus Engine Plant who helped the students with the sampling, said she has been volunteering with Friends of the Rouge water sampling for nearly 18 years, starting as a parent volunteer in Northville with her son’s school.

She said that point source pollution from industry into the watershed ended significantly with government regulation like the Clean Water Act, which in 1972 prohibited discharge of any pollutant from a point source into navigable waters unless allowed by a permit.

She said storm water runoff into lakes and rivers is responsible for many pollutants getting into the water, and retention ponds try to allow chemicals to settle out of storm runoff before discharge.

“People always used to think ‘Oh, these big companies, big industry, they are dumping all these chemicals into the rivers and they are polluting our water,’” Bandy said. “But nowadays, let me tell you, we don’t do that at all. We have some pretty clean water leaving our plant, and really it is all of us that are polluting the storm water.”

Johns reiterated that the non-point sources of pollution, like lawn fertilizer washing into the watershed after a rain storm cause problems in rivers like the Rouge.

Bill Polomik, a senior environmental engineer at GM’s Romulus Engine Plant, said rivers like a section of the Rouge in Detroit catching fire from oil and coal dust on its surface prompted the passage of the Clean Water Act.

He said now that regulated point discharges from industries are controlled it is non-point discharges, like oil running off parking lots during a rainstorm, that need to be addressed.

“Who has walked in a big parking lot on the way to a store and seen a rainbow-colored sheen on the pavement?” Polomik said. “I think everybody, all the time.

“Those ‘non-point discharges’ are much harder to regulate. What is required is a change in the way people manage their business. If you have a leaking car, get it fixed. Be careful with your used oil.”

Ali Hadi, 15, said the hands-on testing of the Rouge helps students more than textbooks understand what goes on with the watershed.

“Just reading it in the book doesn’t show them what is really happening,” Hadi said. “Doing hands-on things kind of show them that you need to actually put some effort into it and not just read about it and educate. You have to do something.”

The students collect water samples in the fall and the spring, and Johns said after a year of studying AP Environmental Science and doing hands-on projects, her students view the world in a different way.

“For these kids there is a lot of meaning for what they are doing because they realize that every little thing that they do impacts the river in some way,” Johns said, “because this is the watershed that they live on.”