Students test Vermilion River for pollution

Seventy-six Comeaux High School juniors and seniors applied theories and testing skills learned in the classroom to a real-world environment Wednesday, testing the Vermilion River for pollution.

Sitting down in the middle of Vermilionville on a fine, cool day, the students were guided in their work by Lisa Ranney, a science and chemistry teacher.

The students used testing tools to measure temperature and oxygen levels and look for polluting nitrates and phosphates that might be present in the water.

“One thing we stress is the importance of the environment and keeping the river clean,” Ranney said.

The outing, which included boat tours of the river, was made possible by a $99,000 grant from the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration to the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, which is running the “Drains to Coast” program to enlighten Lafayette Parish students.

In all, 600 students from Comeaux, Lafayette High School and the David Thibodeaux STEM Magnet Academy will participate.

Students are taught theories and processes inside the classroom, according to Whitney Broussard, a research scientist at UL-Lafayette who runs the Drains to Coast program.

“Now they get to come here and apply those principles in a real-world situation,” he said.

Broussard said the NOAA grant is for two years, with high school students taking part in the outdoors classes in the fall and spring. The first classes at Vermilionville were in fall 2013, he said.

Comeaux seniors John Sledge and Abby Thibeaux, chemistry students who have excelled, mentor other students involved in the program.

“We’re getting a new taste of leadership,” said Sledge, who plans to major in economics and minor in chemistry and music at either Bowdoin College, in Brunswick, Maine; Georgetown University, Washington, D.C.; or Connecticut College, New London, Conn.

“It’s taking our skills in the classroom and applying it outdoors in a real-world environment,” added Thibeaux, whose post-high school plans include LSU and chemical engineering.

Students measured and tested water samples under the gaze of Amy Clark, who decides which Gulf Coast schools get grant money as program manager for NOAA’s Gulf of Mexico Bay-Watershed Education and Training Program.

“It’s good to see federal money being used for such valuable purposes — teaching these kids,” Clark said.

It was unclear midway through the students’ testing session whether the Vermilion River was dirty, unnaturally salty or if the pH level was high.

Greg Guidroz, of the Bayou Vermilionville District, said the Vermilion River at one time was unhealthy due to a lack of water flow. Water became stagnant following U.S. Army Corps of Engineers levee projects that walled in the Atchafalaya Basin to protect people from rising water after the 1927 flood. The levees prevented the water flow that had come from the Atchafalaya River via Bayou Courtableau.

Guidroz said the 1970s-era Teche Vermilion Freshwater District project restored the Vermilion River water flow.

Ranney said half the class tested the water Wednesday while the other students were aboard boats taking an educational row down the Vermilion River with Vermilionville guides. She said the classes were to switch places.

“They’re learning the history of the river and viewing its beauty,” Ranney said.