Colorado River Watershed Studies

Every other year, the 3rd and 4th grade students from Ms. Cole’s class at Flagstaff Junior Academy does an intensive science unit of study on watersheds. In particular, they focus on our regional watershed, the Colorado River. To bring all of their learning together and into context, Seeds of Stewardship brings them to Lee’s Ferry to see the mighty Colorado up close on a two day, one night, overnight excursion. This year our trip spanned April 24th and 25th. 


Our first stop along the way is Navajo Bridge. Until the construction of the original bridge in 1928, Lee’s Ferry was the only way to cross the Grand Canyon with vehicles. Being a ferry boat across a then free flowing, and often flash flooding river meant it was often unreliable and unsafe. Students are able to walk out on the historic 1928 bridge which was replaced by the larger and wider bridge that cars now cross in 1995.


After our lunch and bridge stop we head down to Paria Beach on the Colorado River. The Paria River joins the Colorado just upstream of the beach causing the Paria Riffle. Here the native humpback chub competes with non-native rainbow trout for food resources and sediment from Paria Canyon begins adding the distinctive red-brown color back into the river after the dam at Lake Powell removes all sediment upstream of the ferry.


Here on Paria Beach students play some active games to learn more about water resources and our watershed. In our first lesson, students learn that the average US family uses 200-300 gallons of water daily, and families in the third world use about 20. In places where water doesn’t come from a faucet in the home, someone, usually female children, have to carry that water home in buckets sometimes for 2-3 miles between the home and the water source. Students compete in a relay race to see how quickly they can haul 20 gallons of water from the river to their tubs. Water is heavy and even with a water source only 20 yards away filling the tub takes a great deal of time! Once the water has been hauled (and returned) students have an opportunity to contemplate how their own water usage might change if they had to carry it from a distant source? How might their lives be different if they had to spend so many hours a day carrying water? Could they go to school? Play sports? Watch cartoons on a Saturday morning? Water flowing freely from a tap gives the illusion that water in limitless. But, here on the Colorado Plateau, that is far from true.


After the water relay race, students use sponges in metal trays to simulate water in a watershed both with and without wetland areas. Turns out, wetlands are pretty important to the water not just running right out the other side! Last activity at the beach is a hunt for the macroinvertebrates that feed the fish and other larger animals. As the students have looked for macroinvertebrates elsewhere, they know the density we typically see under rocks and in swampy areas near a river’s edge. On the Colorado though, macroinvertebrates are fewer in number and variety as the students quickly learn. The damming of the river creates a significant change to the ecosystem here and it is quite apparent when looking for the insects that form the base of the food pyramid.


After setting up camp, our final activity for day one is a visit to the Lonely Dell Ranch and Orchard. Here was the home of the early founders and operators of Lee’s Ferry who originally planted the fruit trees that now flourish under the care of the US Park Service. This stop is always a highlight of the trip with students examining the trees for any apricots or peaches that might be ripe enough for the picking.


On day two students have a chance to express their learning and emotions about this place with watercolor paintings. These paintings will later be paired with a writing assignment and placed on display at First Friday Art Walk. Finally, before driving back to Flagstaff, the class takes a hike down Cathedral Wash to a quiet spot to make a final sound map and finish out the last activity in their Jr. Explorer Handbooks.


If we want children to care about the things they are learning, our best bet is to make it relevant. Seeing pictures of the Amazon river is ok, but seeing our own mighty river up close and in person brings all of the concepts into clear and relatable focus. There is a big difference between compliance and engagement. How wonderful to see a whole class engaged and taking charge of their own discovery process. This is what education looks like.