Liz Mock-Murphy expected a little whining from her Greeley Central High School students as she led them outside. Flakes fell from a sky as gray as the icy snow under their feet. The wind fastened a blade to the temperature of just a few puny degrees.
Mock-Murphy winced herself, and she wore a heavy coat and a fuzzy hat with huge earmuffs, the kind used by those who enjoy ice fishing in the mountains. Even Brian Brinkmeier, field supervisor for Quality Well and Pump, wondered how long he could keep his guys, dressed in beefy coats and hats and gloves, outside. They would need breaks in the truck, he said. The students almost looked naked by comparison.
Then Mock-Murphy and her students saw the yellow well tower just a few yards from the entrance. She was pleasantly surprised by their reaction.
“They thought it was really, really exciting,” she said. “I’m not kidding.”
Maybe Mock-Murphy’s students were just used to the cold, given the extended snap that’s blanketed Greeley, or maybe they’re AP environmental science students, so getting to see a water well helped them forget the frostbite. Or maybe, just maybe, they’re excited about applying what they’ve learned to the real world.
The well is part of the Well Watch Project, which hopes to help teachers and students understand the importance of our groundwater through monitoring wells drilled on school properties. The project actually began in 1991 when the Central Colorado Water Conservancy District installed the first well at Eaton Elementary School. By 1995, 16 were added from Eaton to Pueblo. But because there was no way to store and analyze data collected by students, the interest dried up.
The water conservancy district partnered with the Poudre Learning Center to revitalize the project in 2010. Now three wells are at the learning center. One was installed at Platteville Middle School in September, and now there’s the one at Greeley Central. The project teaches students how groundwater occurs, how long it takes to replenish and, perhaps most important, how easily it can be contaminated, as students will monitor for nitrates and the acidity of the water, as well as its oxygen content.
“So they’ll just be able to walk outside, open up a well, drop a line and pull water out of the earth,” Mock-Murphy said.
They can then compare those results with the other wells scattered throughout in the program. Remember how there was no way to store the data in the mid-1990s? The Internet solves that problem now.
Mock-Murphy, like most instructors, prefers to teach this way. She could show them a diagram and talk about a well that delivers water to farmland in Weld, and her AP students would probably get it, but it wouldn’t stick beyond a test. Or she can walk them outside, pull up some water and ask them what could happen if she dumped a bunch of chemicals in it.
“Anytime your students can collect real-time data, they internalize the knowledge,” Mock-Murphy said.
She can, in other words, not only test the water, but also explain that the sand they pull up with it is proof of an ocean that once covered the land.
There’s another reason to help students “internalize” information about groundwater, said Chuck Call, a steward for the Poudre Learning Center who helped put the project together. Most adults don’t realize how important it is to keep groundwater clean, he said. Some rural areas, like those in Weld County, use groundwater for drinking. It’s also a backup to the water in our reservoirs and rivers, and if that water is polluted, Call said, what water would we drink?
“We need an informed public,” Call said. “They will be the ones voting on these issues in the future.”
This isn’t just for an exercise or a test, Mock-Murphy said. The data the kids collect will carry over for years. In fact, that data is one of the reasons Quality Well and Pump donated its equipment and manpower to drill the well at Greeley Central. The company wants to know those numbers, too.
The water conservancy district hopes to expand that collection of data to measure what fracking is doing to the groundwater. There’s no current way for the students to measure that under the parameters of the program, but the district hopes to work with organizations soon to find a way.
That’s one goal. There are other, larger goals. They hope for more wells at more schools, and they will re-drill the ones they lost when the program died in the early ’90s. They will host a second-annual class in the spring to teach more instructors about the project. The goal is to make the water wells part of science instruction throughout Weld County. The groundwater already plays a part in students’ lives. Now they want it to be part of their studies.