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South Portland students let go of year-long lesson on water quality

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South Portland students let go of year-long lesson on water quality

SOUTH PORTLAND — On a cloudy Thursday morning, fifth-grade students from Abby Morgan's class at Small Elementary School would normally be doing math. 

But on May 22, donning full rain gear, they instead said goodbye to nearly 300 "class pets."

In the culmination of their TroutKids program with the Portland Water District, 21 students released tiny trout fry into Trout Brook, which flows into Mill Creek.

For more than four months, students in Morgan's class cared for what began as nearly 400 trout in two 30 gallon tanks. The kids would check in on the trout each day and learn about the local ecosystems they contribute to, with emphasis on the one in their own backyards.

Of the trout they began with, students guessed that only around 11 actually made it to release day, due to water temperature issues in their classroom tank. But PWD brought emergency fry with them last week to save the day. 

Small is one of about half a dozen schools that participate in the program in conjunction with their study of the water cycle.

Before releasing the trout, students worked with environmental educators from PWD to test the quality of their trout's new habitat at Trout Brook Nature Preserve. Students measured the acidity of the water and inspected the number of different macro-invertebrates, or bugs, living underneath rocks in the stream. They also looked at what kinds of things live around the stream that might affect how clean the water is, like trees, bushes and people. 

The methods they used to figure out if the stream was clean enough to support trout are some of the same used by water quality experts at Portland Water District. 

Morgan, their teacher, was an environmental educator with the PWD prior to teaching at Small, and said she loves that her students can learn about their impact on urban streams.

"It gives them context into bigger issues," she said.

Trout Brook has been declared an "impaired stream" by the Department of Environmental Protection, not because the water quality is inadequate, but because the stream lacks enough biodiversity for it to be considered thriving. When students searched for bugs, they found only a few different species living under the rocks. 

Kate McDonald, project scientist with the Cumberland County Soil and Water Conservation District, said the stream is getting "closer and closer" to stability, and projects like the TroutKids program help spread awareness. 

"At this age, this is where you get them plugged in," she said while students studied bugs with magnifying glasses. "Once you make them aware, they go home and talk to their parents, they talk to their schools; they’re viewing this as a resource, and not as a place to dump their lawn clippings."

When a horn sounded at noon, students lined up next to the stream for their trout's grand finale. One by one, each student gently poured a small, plastic cup of water containing a few trout into the bubbling stream. 

“It’s like our little children are going off," fifth-grader Avery Hamor said affectionately as she waved goodbye to her trout. Her classmates giggled.

"What?" she responded. "It’s true!"

Shelby Carignan can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106 or scarignan@theforecaster.net. Follow her on Twitter: @shelbycarignan.