In its third consecutive year, the Howard County Conservancy's student-driven Watershed Report Card project showed minimal improvement to the health of the county's watershed and schoolyards, according to the grading reveal on April 25 in Woodstock.
Students from the county's 12 high schools performed a yearlong assessment of their watershed and schoolyards, studying and grading the area's health based on biological, chemical and physical factors. During Tuesday's presentation, Howard high school students presented the average schoolyard a D letter grade and graded streams with a C.
Erosion and impervious surfaces were notably concerning in schoolyards, with half of all schoolyards rated in poor condition, according to the report card.
Six of the eight streams that were studied were in moderate condition, the report card showed, including studies at the Lower Patapsco at Avalon; South Branch Patapsco at Mt. Pleasant; Middle Patuxent at Gorman Park, Southwind Trail and Shady Lane; and Little Patuxent at Lake Elkhorn, Macomber Lane and Faulkner Ridge.
Last year's overall schoolyard grade fell to a D- after receiving a B in 2015, while local streams were given at C+, the same grade received in 2015. Dumpster and grease-container leaks, invasive plant species and erosion were highlighted in poor schoolyard conditions.
The project is funded by a three-year $310,000 grant from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, known as NOAA, and has received recognition from state Sen. Ben Cardin.
New to this year's study was an in-depth evaluation of the Ellicott City flood on July 30 that left dozens of businesses and residents in shambles after rushing waters destroyed properties, sidewalks and roadways. Following months of construction and inspections, historic Main Street reopened to the public in November, featuring new and returning businesses.
Meg Boyd, the conservancy's executive director, said students were assigned different roles for the flood study, such as developers, environmentalists, elected officials and residents. In their respective roles, each student shared their opinions using land-use maps, weather data and NOAA interactive resources to determine whether the flood was preventable.
"Was it a fluke; a one-time, heavy amount of rainfall that couldn't be prevented?" Boyd said. "Could we mitigate some of the damage in the future? As they played all the different roles, they had to argue what that person would be arguing. The developer had a different perspective than the resident in the historic district."
Jessica Kohout, a Reservoir High School biology teacher, said her students debated over ways to prevent future flooding. Since the high school is located in the southern part of the county, she said, students were able to learn more about Ellicott City and other northern areas.
"It was really cool to see them get involved. It was a great activity," she said.
Arguments were formed as students conducted stream corridor assessments along a river in the Tiber-Hudson watershed, which is located below the historic district. Boyd said students studied the stream banks undercut from the flood, silt washing into the stream from storm water and erosion as well as impervious surfaces surrounding the stream.
"It was really a perfect opportunity to take what they learned about assessing the stream corridor and take it into that real world, where we actually had that event and all of those things were factors in what happened in the flood."
In the Lower Patapsco at Avalon, students found debris from the July 30 flood.
Atholton High School freshman Kinsely Wargo, 14, said it was interesting to see the effects of permeable and impermeable surfaces as she heard from her peers during the flood discussions. The biggest surprise, she said, was seeing the streams from a different perspective.
"Instead of going there for fun and saying, 'Hey, there's a crayfish on the ground. This must be a healthy stream,' you're really looking at the different types of macroinvertebrates, the quality of the water, the tree cover and erosion."
Sophomore Kareem Mughal, Kinsely's classmate for the project, said the schoolyard's grade, which was a C, has the potential to improve if they revitalize the empty waste management ponds on the property.
"I feel like if we can get rid of them, we could use it for recreation or tree cover or other stuff that would benefit students," said Kareem, 14. "Coming to this conservatory and realizing all the different factors that are affecting the stream, I feel like it would be better if we made changes in our environment and then our environment will be way better than it was before."
At Oakland Mills High School, sophomore Makenna Burns, 16, said applying science to her surroundings at school opened her eyes to possible improvements, including the installation of a native plant garden with help from the Howard County Master Gardeners.
Mary Weller, the school system's secondary science coordinator, said reviewing the tragic flood made the study "more meaningful" to students because it provided insight into real-world disasters.
"Our goal is to make sure that our students have the experience and learn science as student scientists," Weller said. "We put students in positions of collecting, analyzing and reporting meaningful scientific data about the environment that matters. … When learning can commit to our everyday experiences, it means a lot more to us and ends up being much deeper."
Thirteen additional Maryland cities and counties participated in this year's Watershed Report Card program, she said.
A statewide report card is under development, including data from 12 other counties, including Prince George's, Anne Arundel, Montgomery and Harford counties. Students from nine county school systems, including Howard, will present their work during the summit at the Miller Senate House on May 10.