Connecting kids to water and wildlife
August 2012 California Bountiful magazine
Story by Kate Campbell
Photos by Richard Green and Jason Dean
Young scientists find a living laboratory on Fresno County farmland.
Fresno County farmer Marvin Meyers, with wildlife biologist Jason Dean, points out wildlife thriving in the wetlands he has developed.
Sometimes all it takes to open young eyes and minds is a trip outside with teachers and experienced guides. That's the case for more than 1,000 San Joaquin Valley children who each year visit the Meyers Water Bank and Wildlife Project near Mendota.
In addition to being a working 3,000-acre ranch and a privately owned water bank, the project provides a living laboratory for students from kindergarten through high school. The young scientists conduct field studies in the ranch's restored wetlands—testing water quality, identifying wildlife, collecting insects, practicing mapping skills and helping maintain the private conservation area.
A visit to the Meyers Water Bank and Wildlife Project offers students activities that are an extension of classroom work and that meet California Academic Content Standards.
Once the work is done, there's time for the students to play. They hike and learn to kayak and canoe with the help of experts, including resident wildlife biologist and program manager Jason Dean, master falconer Cat Krosschel and kayaker Steve Starcher, who is director of the San Joaquin River Stewardship Program.
Located on the Pacific Flyway, the water bank and wildlife project provides habitat for migrating waterfowl—ducks, geese and cranes—especially in the winter. The wetland area also supports kit foxes, beavers, turtles, coyotes, rabbits, giant garter snakes and a variety of birds year-round.
Fresno County farmer Marvin Meyers spent about five years creating the project. He said the idea for creating a water education program on his land came during visits to the property while it was in the early stages of development.
It was spring, he recalled, and the newly established wetlands were aflutter with thousands of migrating birds. The sight was so inspiring, Meyers said, that he wanted to share it with others, especially children. He worked with county education officials and classroom teachers to create today's program that's meant to spark the wonder he'd felt.
"We found students who live nearby, with the Delta Mendota Canal flowing right through town, didn't understand how the state's major water projects work and the role their community plays in the state's water-delivery system," said Dean, a former game warden with the California Department of Fish and Game, who manages the water bank's wildlife resources and the educational programs. "Our goal is to increase awareness of water resources, agriculture and wildlife for those who visit."
The effort hasn't gone unnoticed. In 2007, the Meyers Water Bank and Wildlife Project (www.meyersproject.org) earned the state's top environmental leadership award for its unique approach to sustainable agricultural practices. Officials praised the project's blending of three important goals: groundwater storage to provide a sustainable water supply for agricultural purposes; restoration of habitat for use by wildlife; and education outreach to students in the community.
Meyers and Dean said the project provides a way to educate future California decision-makers about water and its importance to agriculture, as well as the need to protect natural resources. At the end of a visit to the project, students are able to follow the movement of water in California on a map. They can describe how water is imported, stored and exported from the water bank and what it means for farming. And they can explain how wetlands work and why they're important.
On a weekday morning in May, science students from Mendota High School hopped onto buses for the short ride to the project, which is behind a former sugar refinery and adjacent to Fresno Slough. Meyers bought the plant and surrounding land after it ceased operations in the late 1990s. Today, he farms olives and cattle on the land, using a combination of water delivered by irrigation districts and his own banked supplies.
The students rode on a converted cotton wagon to the project's interior, where Meyers has built a covered observation platform and open-air classroom that overlooks one of the water bank's holding ponds.
"Each year, the wetland evolves and changes," said Mendota High School biology teacher Glady Ruiz, who has brought students to the project for the past five years. "And every year, the project's program improves."
Ruiz's students were among the first to explore the project, she said. What they see during a field trip now depends on whether it's a wet or dry year. But as the wetlands have expanded, the variety and number of species in the project area have steadily increased as well.
"We have a chance to explain these natural, changing conditions to our students," she said, adding that Mendota is an agricultural community where most adult residents work in nearby fields. Water for irrigation means jobs in Mendota, which in recent years has experienced an unemployment rate of more than 40 percent when water supplies have been tightest.
The Meyers project does not charge for class visits, and every effort is made to overcome obstacles to children visiting. If there's no money for school buses to take students on field trips, the project helps with transportation costs. It also provides free educational materials to students and teachers that meet state curriculum standards.
Grace Reeve, who teaches chemistry at Mendota High School, said the project provides her students with field experience to study things such as pH (potential hydrogen) levels in the water, as well as learn how naturally occurring chemical elements are used by aquatic species, plants and wildlife.
Students find a living environmental laboratory at the Meyers Water Bank Project near Mendota, including a variety of species and water testing opportunities.
"Because the project is so close to the community, it's learning science from resources in our own backyard," Reeve said. "It gives the kids a real sense of pride to know this resource is here and that they can understand its importance."
The project isn't all science and math, however. On a sunny morning just before school ended for summer vacation, the Mendota High School science students got a quick lesson on water safety and how to handle a kayak. Then they took to the water—like ducks coming home—before pausing to do a bit of cleanup so the habitat is improved for the next visitors.
"There's an incredible amount of wildlife that has taken over the project area," Meyers said. "I want the public to get a chance to see this. I enjoy it so much, I want to give back to society through having young people come here and learn about what we do."
5 things to know about groundwater
From planting trees to fishing discarded tires out of Fresno Slough, visiting students help improve wildlife habitat and clean up the environment. But a day at the project is not all work. There's also time for fun, such as kayaking for older students.
What is a water bank?
It's like a bank account—put money in; take it out when it's needed. A water bank is a way to store surface water (such as snowmelt and river water) that seeps into natural underground basins called aquifers. When this groundwater is needed, it's pumped to the surface for use.
How is groundwater used?
Groundwater provides more than 40 percent of California's drinking water and about 30 percent of the water used for crop irrigation in normal rainfall years.
How much is the state's total water supply?
In an average year, California's total surface water supply is about 200 million acre-feet, with groundwater contributing about 15 million acre-feet a year to that total.
What is an acre-foot of water?
It's about the amount needed to fill a football field with water 1 foot deep—about 325,000 gallons. The average U.S. household uses an estimated 350 gallons a day, which means an acre-foot of water supplies roughly 1,000 homes a day.
Why are wetlands important to groundwater?
These marshy areas, which are home to a wide variety of species, naturally filter and recharge groundwater on its path to storage. According to satellite imagery from NASA, more than 50 percent of the nation's wetlands have disappeared since the 1600s. The rate of loss in the U.S. has decreased in recent years due to conservation efforts, such as the Meyers Water Bank and Wildlife Project in California.
Source: California Farm Water Coalition: The Water Fact Book
The Meyers Water Bank and Wildlife Project operates a system of pumps and pipes that bring surface water to holding ponds, where water is allowed to seep into underground aquifers for storage and later use.