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    Students come to marshes' aid

    By JULIANNE WU

    © St. Petersburg Times, published February 24, 2001


    SEMINOLE -- Earlier this year, Heather Judkins' marine science honors class weeded, cleared and leveled the 16- by 16-foot area behind Seminole High School's tennis courts, put in an irrigation system, fenced off the area and then lined it with a thick black tarp to hold water and plants.

    A week after the Jan. 6 project, the students and volunteers from Tampa BayWatch, which works to restore nature habitats for fish and wildlife in the Tampa Bay area, returned and planted 5,000 salt marsh plugs -- also known as Spartina alterniflora or smooth cordgrass.

    "It was fun, but not hard work," said Lauren Yeager, 17, a junior. "We worked about three hours at a time."

    Now, it is up to the chemistry honors class taught by Laurie Vaughn-Grantges to do its part for ecology.

    Both classes are participating in the Coastal Wetland Nursery Program, sponsored by Tampa BayWatch.

    About every other week, 30 students, divided into teams of two, visit the salt marsh, perform 16 tests on the water and report their findings.

    On Wednesday, the students were ready to conduct their second set of tests since the plants were put in. They were armed with yellow rubber gloves, plastic aprons and small kits containing various solutions and measuring devices.

    "Today, we're testing for pH levels," said Jordan Smith. She and her partner, Jessica Simons, are 16-year-old juniors.

    First, Jessica and Jordan collected a water sample, applied a few drops of another liquid to see what color it turned and then matched it up with the same color on a meter to determine the water's acidity or alkalinity level. They got an 8.0, indicating that the water was slightly alkaline.

    Aaron Vorel, 16, thinks the tests are important. "The water has to remain constant in order for the plants to thrive," the junior said.

    On Wednesday, he and his partner, Nicole Mariani, also a 16-year-old junior, tested for phosphates in the water. They came up with 1.0 parts per million.

    "That's pretty good," said Nicole. "Last time, it was 1.5."

    Among the 16 tests students performed Wednesday were ones for algae, alkalinity, ammonia nitrogen, calcium hardness, carbon dioxide, copper, iron, detergent levels and salinity. Each team had a different task.

    "Through this project, we are also trying to teach about water quality and quantitative analysis," Vaughn-Grantges said. "The teams rotate tasks each time, so each student will get to conduct at least five different tests before the end of the school year."

    Why is such a project necessary?

    According to the Tampa BayWatch's Web site, more than 44 percent of shoreline vegetation, mangroves and salt marshes have disappeared from the bay in the past century.

    "That is due mainly to waterfront development, dredging and pollution," said Judkins, who has taught at Seminole for seven years.

    The salt marshes, seagrasses and mangroves act as natural biological filters that help remove impurities from coastal waterways, Judkins said. They also are important to fish and wildlife for spawning, foraging and refuge.

    For now, Judkins' students are not very involved with the school's salt marsh. The plants are watered automatically once a week, and Tampa BayWatch representatives monitor the project monthly.

    But, in six months -- when the number of plants has doubled to about 10,000 -- half of the crop will be harvested by the marine science students, taken to a spot in Tampa Bay and replanted.

    Peter Clark, director and founder of St. Petersburg-based Tampa BayWatch, said 5,000 plants will cover about 1 acre of new marshland in Tampa Bay.

    Then the process begins anew. The marine science students will replant the remaining 5,000 plants in new flats, spreading them out over the nursery bed at Seminole High. And the chemistry classes will conduct the tests again, even through vacation periods.

    Clark said the program costs about $5,000 to start at a school. Any ongoing expenses are covered by Tampa BayWatch, which began the Coastal Wetland Nursery Program in 1994.

    Grants for the coastal restoration project come mainly from governmental bodies, foundations and individuals.

    Other participating schools include Madeira Beach Middle School and Countryside and Palm Harbor University high schools. The program has a waiting list, Clark said, but people can consult the Web site, www.tampabaywatch.org, for other programs, or call (727) 896-5320.

    - Staff writer Julianne Wu can be reached at 445-4221 or by e-mail at wu@sptimes.com.

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