Students get feet wet for new ecology degree

Efforts are being made to return Titus Creek to its natural state.

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Walla Walla Community College watershed ecology student Valerie Scott calls for a bucket after netting a small fish from Titus Creek near the Community College. Students, instructors and local tribes people worked to move fish from a straight section of the creek so the creek can be restored to a more natural, meandering habitat for wildlife. The watershed ecology program is a new degree offered by Walla Walla Community College and this served as the first field trip for the class.

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Fish technician Joelle Pomraning (right) sorts through a small basin full of water and fish to tell Walla Walla Community College watershed ecology students about each species found during an effort to move fish from a section of Titus Creek.

WALLA WALLA -- Students in the new watershed ecology degree program at Walla Walla Community College got a feel for what work might be like as part of their first hands-on field trip last week.

With nets or buckets in hand, some working knee-deep in water and others standing nearby, the students did their part to catch and move fish from a section of Titus Creek that is being restored.

Through a grant, Titus Creek, which runs through the college grounds, will be remeandered, and revegetated, to reverse past manipulation and return it to a more natural state.

Technicians with the fisheries department of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation led the project using powered rods that sent a current through the water strong enough to temporarily stun the fish and bring them to the surface.

Over a couple of hours, the technicians and students moved several young fish that included sculpin, rainbow trout and brook lamprey into a safer section of the creek. They finished by counting, measuring and documenting each fish and its species.

Such work, whether moving fish, or supporting restoration of watersheds, is what will await the nearly 15 students as they complete their degrees in the next two years.

"This is exactly the kind of work that these technicians would be employed to do," said Jaime Clarke, associate director of the college's William A. Grant Water & Environmental Center.

The new watershed ecology degree is the latest water-management program offered through the college, and perhaps the most ambitious. The new program stands out from the colleges' irrigation and water resource technology degrees for its inclusion of science, agriculture and engineering.

For these technicians, an understanding of local or regional watersheds will also include study of fish and their habitats, soil and human impact on water resources.

"The degree is really about rocks and fish and plants and water and soil, and how they all interact together. And how humans impact those ecosystems," said Jerry Anhorn, director of the water center who is also an instructor.

Joelle Pomraning was one of the lead tribal technicians catching and moving the fish during the salvage effort. Pomraning could name each fish, and noted distinguishing characteristics -- like a fungus or virus manifested through black spots on a trout.

"It doesn't always indicate something bad," she said. "They can often survive."

Clarke described how in years past, the creek had been manipulated in a way that is now viewed as detrimental to the water quality as well as to the fish.

"This creek had been straightened," she explained. "Instead of native vegetation, it had weeds and blackberries."

The restoration will give the creek its meandering curves back, and replace the non-native plants with native, healthier vegetation. It is funded through a grant from the Snake River Salmon Recovery Funding Board.

Clarke tried to offer some insight as to why the creek had been manipulated in the first place.

"Why do we have a concrete channel through town? It's convenience, it's flood control," she said.

These days, restoration includes accounting for the health of the fish that have suffered through past practices like damming or rerouting of waterways. The Umatilla tribes particularly emphasize the need to respect nature, the water and especially its fish, which represent a deep, spiritual part of the tribe.

"We're trying to do the right thing," Clarke said.

The students eagerly participated in the project, and learned about the fish as Pomraning offered facts.

"This is more fish than I've caught all month," commented Jarrod Miller, 21, who came prepared with gear to wade in the water with the technicians. At places, the water level was just to the worker's toes, at others past their knees.

Miller said he was enjoying the program.

"It's fun," he said. "A lot of fun, actually. Sure beats math class."

Valerie Scott, 39, was another student who took advantage of the project's hands-on work.

"I worked in an office for 15 years and I'm just done with that," she said. "I want to be outside and making a difference."

Jennifer Svoboda participated in the project as both a fisheries technician and as a student in the new degree program. Svoboda, who belongs to the Umatilla tribes, is among about four tribal members who are working to earn associate in applied arts and sciences degrees from the two-year program.

Svoboda said she was glad for the new program, and the latest efforts to instill more respect and understanding of the local watershed with area residents.

"Hopefully it will open the eyes of the public too," she said.

Helping along Titus Creek gave the students a taste of potential future work, which Anhorn and Clarke say is only increasing as restoration and conservation efforts gain popularity. They agreed that as students enter the work field their understanding of the watersheds and the inclusion of fish, soil and even humans will make them more competitive employees.

And careers related to watershed ecology are considered in high demand, as projects like the Titus Creek restoration show. Clarke said such projects are sprouting up throughout the country. She said projections show thousands of new jobs opening up for environmental technicians, that could pay between $16 and $23 an hour.

"It's definitely a living wage," she said. "These are great jobs that have a bright future. We'll continue to see growth in this industry."

The water center, completed in 2007 at a cost of about $2.8 million, illustrates the need for collaboration and understanding of the region's watershed. The center now houses a division of the Umatilla tribes natural resources department, as well as an office of the state Department of Ecology. The center also serves as a meeting place for various agencies to discuss water rights and issues.

Since being built, the center has secured close to $6 million in additional grants for an expansion, with about $1 million committed through the tribes. The tribes hope to see more jobs and more education around water conservation and fish restoration projects come from the investment.

Anhorn said the partnership with the tribes, and the tribes' study and belief in the sacredness of water, its fish and the land, helped to bring the watershed ecology degree program forward.

"It was our partnership with the tribe that helped advance it and develop it," he said.

Maria Gonzalez can be reached at mariagonzalez@wwub.com or 526-8317.

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