A local project has put St. Tammany high school and junior high students in the field to test water quality and to plant trees around seven parish detention and retention ponds. 

The multiyear project, called Adopt-A-Pond, involves students in STEM programs from Slidell Junior High, St. Tammany Junior High, Fontainebleau Junior High, Boyet Junior High, Madisonville Junior High and Covington High. Throughout February, the students worked at water assessment and planted more than 2,300 trees along the banks of the ponds.

Data was collected to track how the trees in the future will help filter pollutants from runoff and create habitat to make a healthier watershed and environment.

Eighth graders from Karen Triola and Kristen Rushing's science classes at Slidell Junior High were recently on site to test water at a detention pond known as Ashton Oaks Pond #1. Some used rubber boots provided to them while they collected water. 

At tables set up on the banks, the students tested the water for dissolved oxygen, pH, salinity and water clarity, as well as the presence of nitrates and phosphates.

Eight-grader Niyla Perkins said the students were using two different methods and instruments to test the salinity of the water. They required observation and measurements.

"A hydrometer is the one you drop in the water and it floats or sinks," she said. For the other test, she used a refractometer that estimates salinity based on how the water sample refracts light as it is viewed through a scope.

Student Morgan Parker was at a table used to test for pH. Her sample turned a yellow-green, which she was pleased to see indicated pH in the range from 6 to 6.5. 

“On a scale of 1 to 14, it should be neutral,” she said, “Not too acidic and not too alkaline, so it will be good for growing plants.” 

She hopes that what they learn from the project will be useful to them as adults. 

“With coastal erosion, maybe we’ll take something back from this to maybe rebuild,” she said.

Rushing said the students studied the impact of pollution from humans on the environment and how to reduce it. They knew that would include testing the water for bacteria. 

This is the first time it will have been tested, Rushing said. “Our hopes are next year to get them to bring another eighth-grade class to retest and compare and contrast and see if planting the trees has really helped." 

Adopt-A-Pond is a project led by St. Tammany Parish government in collaboration with St. Tammany Parish Public Schools, as well as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Sea Grant and LSU AgCenter Youth Wetlands Programs. 

Parish Landscape and Parkway Manager John “Spaff” Goodnow was on site to lend hands-on support to the students.

He passed out dibbles to use to plant the seedlings and explained how to arrange the seedlings on a grid, starting at the top and working down to the water. The students planted live oak, cow oak, sweet bay, river birch, cypress, crab apple and plum trees along the levee leading to the pond.

Once established, the tree roots will pull up the nitrates from animal waste and phosphorus from fertilizers that run off of yards in the adjacent development toward the drainage pond, he said. The other side of the pond will be kept clear for parish access and maintenance. 

“We’re trying to create a baseline for monitoring the effectiveness of the plan,” Goodnow said, as well as work with the students to “engage them in stewardship and responsibility for the environment.” 

Students will input results of their study into a data base that parish government can access. He said students will monitor the growth of the trees and see if invasive species have moved in. 

“They’re the first eyes on this,” he said, referring to the data, some of which will be reported to the state department of Environmental Quality and other agencies. 

Corinne Bird, with the LSU AgCenter 4H Youth Wetlands Program, and Carol Franze, marine extension agent with NOAA’s Sea Grant Program, were also on site. 

“I went in and visited each school to educate them on the role these play in their watershed,” Bird said of the ponds. When it rains, “non-point source pollution from different land uses then fills up canals, bayous, rivers and ultimately ends up in Lake Pontchartrain.” 

Franze said each school received the meters and test kits students would need from the LSU Ag Youth Wetlands project. She said the students were already familiar with using the instruments before they came on site.

“They’ve seen them before, looked at them and learned how they work,” in the classroom, she said. “But this is the first time working with them.” 

The students “will go back and do calculations and a little bit of statistics” to record the data they gathered, Franze said. 

E. deEtte Smythe is an environmental engineer and the parish water quality expert for the project.

She said the information collected will form a baseline study to help the parish monitor for improvements in areas the state DEQ has deemed Impaired Watersheds. 

“This is one of our last opportunities to clean the water that comes from yards” before it goes into the pond and into nearby Bayou Vincent and then into Lake Pontchartrain.

"We are doing various things to improve water quality, including going door-to-door where people have homeowner sewer treatment." 

Impaired Waterways is a term the EPA uses to designate when a body of water has reached its Total Maximum Daily Load. The designation “restricts development because you cannot get permits to discharge,” into it, Smythe said.

The trees planted by the students are only some of the more than 40,000 seedlings of 13 species the parish purchased from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to plant in 2019. The goal is to restore the tree canopy in St. Tammany to help with drainage and improve water quality. 

“We have 72 parish ponds to maintain,” she said. “We’ve prioritized based on water quality needs."

"This is our maiden voyage," Smythe said of Adopt-A-School. "Next year we hope to get bigger.”