“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, organized citizens can change the world,” anthropologist Margaret Mead once said. Students and teachers at Newton High School, and Iowa Department of Natural Resources staff, proved exactly that this summer by raising awareness of the South Skunk River watershed by successfully changing the name of Sewer Creek to Cardinal Creek.
Science teacher Courtney Wolken has worked at Newton High School (NHS) for 11 years. In the summer of 2016, Wolken met with Iowa DNR Nonpoint Source Coordinator, Steve Hopkins, and Jasper County DNR’s Keri VanZante, to brainstorm projects for her Advanced Placement (AP) Biology students that would benefit the Newton community. Hopkins and VanZante proposed the idea of changing the creek’s name from “Sewer” to “Cardinal,” in honor of the NHS mascot. Wolken was immediately receptive of the idea for her students. Wolken wrote the project into her AP Biology curriculum for the year, planning to have students begin water testing and watershed assessment during the project, in addition to facilitating the name change.
The creek lies just west of the school and connects to the South Skunk River. It is one of many creeks in Iowa with the descriptor “sewer” because of their historical use as sewage dumping areas. The practice of waste dumping has since been changed, but many creeks still bear the stinky names of their previous purposes.
As part of the creek project, students began organizing trash clean up days. Wolken says:
It was rewarding to see the students take ownership of the project. The students took a day and cleaned up garbage at three site locations. They were always happy to take observations at the sites, and pictures to use for the habitat assessment.
Wolken’s class applied for official approval from the United States Geological Survey (USGS) to change the creek’s name in April 2017, and the USGS responded by asking for evidence of local support for the name change. Hopkins says:
When I learned of this from Ms. Wolken, I offered to contact several local agencies to solicit support letters for the effort. Four local community agencies: the Jasper County Conservation Board, the Jasper Soil and Water Conservation District, the Newton School Board, and the Newton City Council, all responded with enthusiastic support letters.
Wolken’s students also began talking with community members about the creek, and petitioning both the Newton Community School Board and the Newton City Council for approval of the project. Wolken states that her classes continually received positive feedback:
During the process, I have spoken with many community members who shared their stories about the creek that runs behind the school. Many spent time [there] enjoying nature. They had no idea why it was called “Sewer Creek.”
With support from the school board, the Newton community, and the DNR, Wolken’s class presented several letters of support to the USGS. On July 19 they received notice that the name change had been officially approved.
Wolken and Hopkins are both thrilled by the success of the students, and what it means for the future of the creek and the South Skunk River watershed. Hopkins says:
Making NHS students and local residents more aware of their local creek also fits with the statewide water quality education campaign that the Iowa DNR Watershed Improvement Program is embarking upon. …[M]any Iowans are not only unaware of the water quality of their local lakes and streams, many are even unaware of the name of their local creek...These efforts greatly enhanced awareness of a local creek whose new name bears enormous pride in the Newton community.
While waiting for official word from the USGS, both AP Biology and AP Chemistry students started actively monitoring the creek to help assess the water quality long-term. “We would like a few more months of chemical assessment before analysis of the numbers [is shared],” says Wolken. In addition to water quality improvement goals, Wolken sees additional possibilities that could follow from this experience:
I would like this project to continue being a collaboration between the two AP science courses. I have an interest in more restorative projects, such as erosion control, native plantings, and [improvements with] urban water runoff from the school. The students would like to involve community members with some of these projects.
Because signage for creeks is not something the Iowa Department of Transportation normally provides, the DNR stepped forward to fund the DOT to create and install a Cardinal Creek sign. Wolken was present at the time the sign was installed to capture that wonderful moment on camera.
Water Rocks! is thrilled about this example of positive change in support of local water quality improvement, and we are grateful to Courtney Wolken and Steve Hopkins for sharing their stories with us. We congratulate the students and teachers of NHS for showing that a small group of thoughtful, committed, organized citizens absolutely can—and will—change our world!
Photographs in this story were provided by Steve Hopkins and Courtney Wolken.