ALUM CREEK, W.Va. (AP) — Ten-year-old Cassidy, a fifth-grader at Ramage Elementary School in Boone County, is no stranger to crayfish. Her house is near a river, where she and her brothers regularly sift through the water and flip over rocks to find the little critters.
One time, she said, she found one “so, so big” that she had to put it in a dog carrier because a terrarium was too small.
“My pawpaw sometimes doesn’t believe me when I catch something and tell him how big it is, but I swear this one was huge! Bigger than my hand,” Cassidy said, extending all five fingers on her right hand to show the size.
As she held a small crayfish in her hand recently, Cassidy said she’s always been interested in fish, insects and bugs of all kinds. She joined dozens of other fifth-graders from Boone, Lincoln and Kanawha counties at the Claudia L. Workman Wildlife Education Center in Alum Creek for the The Forks of Coal Water Festival.
The event was sponsored by the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection, with support from the Department of Natural Resources, the Youth Environmentalist Program, the Forks of Coal Foundation, the Master Naturalist Program and others.
Students rotated through seven stations, where they learned about recycling, the water cycle, aquatic life and the importance of protecting water sources and the environment.
Wildlife center director Kim Smith said she hopes children who attend these events take away an appreciation for the environment and an understanding of how important it is to conserve it.
“We need to start kids young. The younger they are when they start to learn this stuff, the more willing they are to continue learning it,” Smith said. “They can take the information home to their families and teach them. It’s important that they know about access to clean water and what it means to protect water sources through recycling, composting and not littering.”
The center opened in June, and already has had more than 4,000 visitors come through its doors. This fall, Smith said, leadership is looking to partner with teachers from schools across the region to teach classes on conservation and environmentalism.
In stations set up, children got a firsthand look at the life cycle of a trout, how water molecules advance through the water cycle, and what the bugs and insects in rivers and streams can tell experts about water quality.
Cassidy and Raylee, another fifth-grader at Ramage Elementary, said their favorite station was “Aquatic Life,” where DEP employee Garrett Hoover showed them some of the different species often present in West Virginia’s waterways.
Raylee said she learned “a ton of stuff” she didn’t know.
“Bugs can come from really, really cold water — that was cool to know,” Raylee said.
“And the temperature of the water shows how much oxygen is in it,” Cassidy continued. “So, when the water heats, there’s less oxygen. And some bugs can’t live in that environment, and they could shake and struggle because they can’t breathe.”
Hoover, standing behind a table featuring test tubes filled with smaller species, trays of river water and more, said children are usually most interested in seeing the diversity of aquatic critters. Many, he said, they’ve never heard of. And if they have heard of them — like the ubiquitous crayfish — they might not know how important bugs and insects are for determining the health of streams.
The absence of a species from a water source could indicate higher pollution levels or acidity if they’re sensitive to those types of contamination. Some — as Raylee and Cassidy learned — can indicate changes in temperature.
“Bug data really is the cornerstone of how we monitor streams,” Hoover said. “Through bugs, you can capture all the variability of an average stream and get a sense of how it might be changing.”
All this information was “fascinating” to Cassidy, who looked forward to bringing the knowledge home to her two brothers.
“I really don’t know what’s out there in the world,” Cassidy said. “There are so many bugs and fish and things I’ve never even seen before, but I can’t wait to learn about it all.”