Confluence Project Students Dig into Snow Science
High school students connect to their surroundings through experiential learning
This story was written by the Our Gem Collaborative team for the CDA Press on Sunday, March 21, 2021. Read the original article.
Strapped to snowshoes on the slopes of Lookout Pass, students from Lake City High School found themselves reflecting on Coeur d’Alene Lake.
“It was during our descent,” said Elizabeth Edmonds. “I was suddenly struck by the connection of it all. The snow we had just dug up would one day melt and run into our lake.”
Edmonds and her peers from Jamie Esler’s environmental science class are among the thousands of students who have drawn these parallels while participating in the Confluence Project.
The experiential learning program helps high school students understand science in their watershed. It’s a partnership between University of Idaho, the Coeur d’Alene Tribe, Kootenai Environmental Alliance, Idaho Department of Environmental Quality and Panhandle Health District.
The program provides all curriculum, equipment and field trip funds for schools to participate. Current funders include Alliance Data, Avista Foundation, Coeur d’Alene Tribe Education Department and the Kootenai County Aquifer Protection District.
“[The Confluence Project] challenges my students to work together to solve problems, research real science careers, and engage in the civic responsibility of communicating, collaborating, and volunteering with local organizations,” said Esler. “Most importantly, my students experience and build a relationship with the local mountains, rivers and lakes while on these field trips.”
Throughout the school year, students visit lakes and rivers to measure water quality, tap wells to learn about the aquifer, and snowshoe to quantify snowpack.
“I love getting students outside and teaching them about our watershed on a personal level,” said Marie Schmidt, University of Idaho Coeur d’Alene outreach specialist. “Every year, the Confluence Project provides hundreds of students the opportunity to explore our water resources from snowpack to aquifer and everything in between.”
On this particular day, 50 Lake City High students found themselves digging pits in the snow to determine water availability for the coming year.
“One of the many things I learned at Lookout was how drastically the falling of snow and the steady thaw fuels the entire Inland Northwest and our entire ecosystem,” said Palmer Rakes.
Every snowfall creates a distinct layer in the snowpack, each with different densities and water content. Students measure the density of each layer and calculate the snow water equivalent. They can then compare their findings to data collected by the automated Snow Telemetry (SNOTEL) site at Lookout Pass. SNOTEL sites are located all over the western U.S. and monitored by the Natural Resource Conservation Service. This year, the snow water equivalent in the greater Coeur d’Alene Lake/Spokane River watershed is at 98% of average. At the Lookout site, snow water equivalent is at 94%.
“If you enjoy Coeur d’Alene Lake and the surrounding area, then it is important to know one thing: none of it would be here if it were not for the snow in the mountains,” said student Peter Bukowski. “80% of the water in Coeur d’Alene comes from the snow in the mountains, so it is important to protect our winters.”
The Confluence Project culminates in the Youth Water Summit every spring. Students present water-related research projects at the scientific conference. In an average year, about 10 schools and 500 students participate.
For the latest data on Idaho’s snowpack, check out the current conditions maps from the USDA.
A very special thank you to Lookout Pass for allowing hundreds of students to snowshoe the mountain each year.
Read on for more reflections from Mr. Esler's class
“This field trip was full of excitement, cold hands, and lots of falls in the deep layers of snow. For most of the day we were preoccupied with our tasks, procedures, and making sure we didn’t get lost in the snow. It wasn’t until we were making the journey back down the mountain that I truly realized the beauty of where we were. The snow was falling lightly, frozen moss hung from the trees, and a soft layer of snow covered everything in sight. It was during this descent that I was struck by the connection of it all. The snow that we had just dug up would one day melt and run into our lake. The slope that I was walking on had seen the footsteps of the Coeur d’Alene Tribe, miners and skiers of long ago. The trees that I watched with wonder had seen the perils and rebirth of fire. I often forget how much has come before me. Time brings change, but it also brings familiarity. Every year the snow falls on the mountains. Every year it melts and fills our lake. This cycle teaches us how influential the rhythm of life can be if you’re willing to stop and recognize it.”
— Elizabeth Edmonds
“The importance of Coeur d’Alene’s winters lies in the snow. It provides water for our lakes and way of life. The winters are cold and long but beautiful because of the things they provide for us. The snowpack affects the freshwater coming into the lakes in the spring and early summer, which increases the lake and prevents it from getting too hot, which could harm the species living within the lakes. The annual snowpack present in this area is crucial for the yearlong well-being of this area and the species that live in it.”
— Naomi Booth
“I connected to this place today because it is so calm and relaxing and much needed. I learned that the snow gets colder and harder the farther you dig. Also, the snow melts and runs down the river and eventually into Coeur d’Alene Lake which is really cool. It is very important to get a good snowpack so it can run lots of water back into the rivers and eventually the lake.”
— Andrew Garofalo
“If you enjoy Coeur d’Alene Lake and the surrounding area, then it is important to know one thing: none of it would be here if it were not for the snow in the mountains. 80% of the water in Coeur d’Alene comes from the snow in the mountains, so it is important to protect our winters.”
— Peter Bukowski
“One of the many things I learned while we were at Lookout was how drastically the falling snow and the steady thaw fuels the inland northwest and our entire ecosystem. Without the slow burn of water trickling through the region life would be very different.”
- Palmer Rakes
“Seeing the layers in the snow as we studied them showed history. Like the rings of a tree, the layers highlight the events of the past.”
— Krystan Lundy
“Before there was a ski resort there was a mountain. That mountain, for a millennia, has made its contribution to the ecosystem with its fruitful winters and eventual springtime snowmelt. Upon the arrival of March, the high elevation atmosphere will insulate more thermal temperature and the mountain commences its annual warming. It’s crucial this warming begin in a timely manner in order for rivers to hit their high season early enough, enough for agriculture, herd migration, and hibernation emergence. Winters in Idaho are important. Difficult, yes, but the inconvenience of scraping off your car pales in comparison to the ecological impact of yearly snowpack and how its density directly affects the valley lake level. Due to an ongoing rise in global temperatures, however, these snowfalls and melts have been occurring later and later every year. What this means for the local ecosystem is still under observation, but experiences like these are great opportunities for learning about the significance of the northwestern climate.”
— Joey Maben
“I felt a sense of connection to the mountain. That was the first time I explored Lookout outside of the runs. I learned a great deal about how the mountain changes during the winter.”
— Jack Shrontz
“I learned that there are many different layers in snow and I had never thought about that before. I also learned different types of snow can cause an avalanche. While winters here are dark and gloomy, they are very important. All the snow that falls in the winter months turns into runoff, which provides water for our aquifers, provides water for agriculture and most importantly drains into the lake.”
— Liz Morris
“At Lookout I learned how to measure the layers in snow for our science class. I had a really good time snowshoeing and getting to dig a huge snow pit with some friends. Beside the fact that my hands and feet got extremely cold, I still had a lot of fun. The connection between the snow and the lake is that the snow melts and becomes the lake water.”
— Reese Ramsrud
“To keep these scenic places the same as what they are today and on visits, we will all have to work hard to understand what these places mean. We need to understand the mountain and why it needs the snow. We need to understand the lake and how it needs to be nourished. We need to understand that the environment we live in isn’t just ours, it belongs to other animals and plants as well. Coeur d’Alene offers a lot for many people, and in order to maintain the values, we have to maintain the lands.”
— Lucy Mendez