To Keep Rivers Healthy, RiversEdge West Teaches Kids How They Work

To build the next generation of river stewards, RiversEdge West takes students to the Colorado River or brings a river education to the classroom. 

Kids and bugs just seem to go together, here Grand Valley students meet the tamarisk leaf beetle. 

Intro and Overview

RiversEdge West wants to promote and protect healthy riverside habitat by getting kids excited about it. Since the legendary Colorado and Gunnison Rivers run right through the nonprofit’s Mesa County home base, that means heading to the water. Taking classrooms down to stand on the sandy banks of their home rivers is a powerful recipe to create future river stewards. 

“These young people will ultimately take over,” says the nonprofit’s Executive Director, Rusty Lloyd. RiversEdge West wants them to understand how rivers work and why they are important. Loyd also wants them to understand that they can help protect these wild places today and throughout their lives. 

A student shows a tamarisk leaf beetle to her classmates

RiversEdge West has worked to restore habitat along western rivers for about fifteen years. “We’re really trying to hone in on the legacy and the stewardship of the projects we’ve been involved in,” says Lloyd. By working with professional decision-makers and practitioners, RiversEdge West helps river health today. By educating kids they’re setting rivers up for long-term success. 

Educational Building Blocks

RiversEdge West worked with expert scientists and land managers to develop education programs for students of all ages, from elementary school to the university level. As a result, it’s able to tailor the materials and presentations to meet school district standards for each grade level. 

Lessons can take place by the Colorado River or in the classroom. Lloyd describes the program as “connecting the community of youth to the river and integrating classroom projects with outdoor river curriculum.” Students learn about science topics, like how important healthy river flow rates are, the need for biodiversity, predator/prey relationships, and habitat health. They also learn a more foundational lesson – that individual actions make an impact.  

Learning about Biological Control and Tamarisk Leaf Beetles 

Students also have the opportunity to learn about biological control, also known as biocontrol. Biocontrol reduces pests species (whether plants, insects or animals) by reuniting them with a natural predator. For example, the tamarisk leaf beetle coevolved with tamarisk in Europe and Asia, where the non-native and invasive plant originates. The beetle eats the invasive plants’ leaves, stressing them and giving native plants a chance to compete. 

In the spring and summer, students can practice monitoring tamarisk leaf beetle populations during riverside classroom sessions. If that sounds complicated, it’s not. It involves sweeping trees with bug nets to catch beetles and then counting them. What kid doesn’t like bug nets? 

Finding bugs just takes a net and a little determination. 

According to Cara Kukuraitis, RiversEdge West’s Outreach Coordinator, these days on the river really resonate with students. “I’ve had teachers come up to me saying that the most disengaged students were the most engaged that day,” says Kukuraitis. “It’s really cool because this one activity lets them connect to the river and the environment in a really powerful way.”

“After their first sweep or two, when they discover all the little insects and organisms living in the trees, they start to realize that this is something that they love doing,” says Kukuraitis. “You can see the progress throughout the day, from the kids being uncomfortable out there to be really comfortable and happy, which is really cool.”

But it’s not just the bugs that pull kids in. It’s understanding what weedy, invasives species can do to a river system. “When I look at kids’ faces when I show them before and after photos of a restoration project and it clicks, in that moment they realize how important this work is,” says Kukuraitis. “You see them beginning to understand the ecosystem wide-way that it alters the river.”

Students spread out to try their hand at finding tamarisk leaf beetles.

It Takes A Village

RiversEdge West’s education programs have many supporters, including the Xcel Energy Foundation, Alpine Bank and Forever Our Rivers Foundation. Pooling resources helps to ensure a lasting impact and Forever Our Rivers is proud of its contribution. 

“Funding from Forever Our Rivers Foundation allowed RiversEdge West to expand our river education program and engage an additional 350 students to learn about the importance of our Western rivers,” says Lloyd. “This helped us accomplish a critical piece of our mission, to inspire and educate the next generation of river stewards.” 

Diné Youth Learn River Safety and Ecology in Dominguez-Escalante Canyon

Diné College, Colorado Canyons Association and the BLM take Diné youth down the Gunnison River. 

Kids participating in the Chuska Environmental Youth Camp celebrate their float trip through Dominguez-Escalante Canyon.

Adventures in Education

Every summer, Colorado Canyons Association (CCA) and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) host overnight rafting trips for the Chuska Environmental Youth Camp run by Diné College. The trips explore the Gunnison River as it cuts through the stunning Dominguez-Escalante Canyon. 

“It’s an opportunity to travel through one of the most beautiful places in Colorado,” says Killian Rush, CCA’s Development Director. “The two-day curriculum improves the students’ understanding of river safety and their confidence to deal with challenges,” says Rush. “It also enhances their understanding of river systems and of environmental science practices.” 

A student bravely takes on the task of crossing the current. Remember to always wear a life jacket when on or in a river, and never stand up in the current.

River Safety

During the day, students navigate paddle rafts and duckies, practice river rescue, and learn safe swimming techniques. At night, they sleep at Big Dominguez Campground. “They just have so much fun,” Rush says of the kids. Some are pretty timid about swimming in moving water. “Seeing them work hard to overcome those fears is pretty remarkable,” says Rush. 

(Note: The kids wear life jackets at all times when in and on moving water. You should too!)

It’s easier to explain river ecology concepts on a riverbank than in a classroom.

River Ecology

While gaining practical river safety skills, students also learn about the ecosystems they are traveling through. The curriculum touches on science, technology, engineering, and math. Instructors use hands-on methods to keep the kids engaged and to stay grounded in real-world examples.

They talk about how important healthy rivers and clean water are to community health in the southwest. They also discuss the role of native and invasive species in the ecosystem. The lessons sink in quickly.  “It’s fun to see them develop a sense of place,” says Rush of the students. “You can see that the kids respect these areas.” 

The classes also cover the BLM’s science-based management tactics and possible career pathways. The students walk away from the weekend with a map leading to outdoor careers. Many are excited by the idea of working to protect places like Dominguez-Escalante.

Students practice tossing a “throw bag” filled with rope to swimmers. Rope can be dangerous in the water. Be sure to consult a whitewater rescue professional before attempting this skill.

Forging Connections and Growing Leaders

Participates range in age from 9 to 15 and are accompanied by student youth leaders from Diné College. This mentorship means a lot to the younger kids. It also helps the collegiate scholars develop and polish their leadership skills. According to Rush, the structure builds a lot of trust and creates connections.

Every night the group forms a talk circle, and the youth leaders pose a question for all to consider. The students answer the question one at a time, reflecting on their experiences, thoughts, and feelings. During the talk circle last year, a number of the kids expressed interest in land management and river stewardship careers. That was gratifying for the CCA and BLM leaders, who made that decision themselves.

Keeping the kids moving is a great way to model a healthy lifestyle. Here they learn to navigate inflatable kayaks down the river.

Room To Grow

“With funding from Forever Our Rivers and support from other partners, CCA gets these kids outside and helps them develop an understanding of outdoor careers,” says Rush. “It’s a really powerful program.”

CCA is looking for more funding to expand it. Last year, the program accepted 43 kids. They’d like to grow that number to over 50 and add a classroom-based lesson before each river trip. This will prepare participants for the safety, learning and planning aspects of the trip. 

CCA is also working with the Ute Mountain Ute and Southern Ute Tribes to get students out onto their ancestral lands and rivers. They are developing an environmental education curriculum to complement the planned river and overland adventures. 

The happy campers pose in Do

Brief Histories

While Diné College’s main campus is in Tsaile (Tsééhílí), Arizona, it serves the entire Navajo Nation with five branch campuses, three in Arizona and two in New Mexico. Established in 1968, it was the first college established by and for Native Americans. (There are now 33 similar tribally controlled colleges.) 

There are three National Conservation Areas (NCA) in Colorado — Dominguez-Escalante, Gunnison Gorge, and McInnis Canyons. NCA’s protect natural areas of outstanding ecological, scientific, cultural, historic, or wilderness and recreational value. The BLM is in charge of protecting those values. The Colorado Canyons Association (CCA) helps the community engage with these landscapes.

A Park Designed With Kids’ Input Helps Them Learn to Ride Bikes By the Colorado River

One Riverfront and the City of Grand Junction worked with a broad coalition to build a bike park, basketball court, and playground in an underserved neighborhood by the Colorado Riverfront Trail. 

This graphic shows the Colorado River in the lower-left corner, the Riverside Neighborhood on the right, and a playground, basketball court and open space in between.

One Riverfront, a nonprofit that brings the Mesa County community together to steward its waterways, pooled resources with a broad coalition to help make the Dos Rios community park a better play space. Dos Rios is sandwiched between the Riverside neighborhood and the Colorado River. It’s named for the two rivers that meet in the heart of Grand Junction, the Gunnison and the mighty Colorado. Despite its grand namesakes, the park had room for improvement. 

To make it better, One Riverfront worked with GOCO Inspire, Grand Junction’s RIO (Recreation Inspired by the Outdoors) Coalition, local youth leaders from the Riverside Educational Center, and many other partners. Together, they focused on one of the area’s biggest tourism drivers, bikes. 

A lot of kids in Riverside don’t know how to ride a bike. The Dos Rios improvement project added a bike park to help them learn. The improvements also include slides, swings, a basketball court, a picnic area, and public restrooms. The park has always been a good resource. Now it’s far more user-friendly. It’s also a jumping-off point for valley-wide recreation. 

“We’re excited because it’s getting the children out and on the riverfront trail,” says Michele Rohrbach of One Riverfront. That’s the Colorado Riverfront Trail, which runs beside the park and connects to miles of bike trails along the Colorado River, including a river access point on City property just upstream of Dos Rio. (The river launch is also getting an update from the City.) 

Because of this connectivity, One Riverfront sees the park as a gateway to the city’s great outdoor spaces and to the rivers that run through the valley and carve its canyons. “We thought it was important to get kids outside so they could learn to enjoy it and want to participate in rafting, cycling, walking, and just going out and being a part of nature,” says Rohrbach. “Future stewards are really what we’re looking for,” she says.

A mock-up of the Dos Rios bike park shows an open space with plenty of opportunities for parents to observe their children’s progress.

These Kids are Going Places

Getting comfortable on a bike offers a lifetime of inexpensive, environmentally friendly, and healthy commuting. It’s also a great way to recreate. As kids grow and learn to bike safely, they can switch to road riding or move to the community’s beginner mountain trails in the Lunch Loop area, only a 2.5-mile bike ride away. The City hopes to build a pedestrian bridge across the Colorado so they can ride those 2.5 miles without leaving a bike path. 

Helping disadvantaged kids enjoy their own backyard will improve their quality of life at face value. It will also help them gain access to a booming industry. Biking is big business, and Grand Junction, Fruita, and Loma are major mountain and road biking destinations. Getting local kids involved is a great way to support their physical, mental and emotional development while granting them entry into a potential career path. 

Learning to ride a bike is a childhood right of passage. For kids in the Grand Valley, it also opens the door to world-class opportunities. 

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Grand Valley kids have incredible access to the Colorado River via the Riverfront Trail. 

Turning Towards the Colorado River

The Dos Rios project is part of a wave of commercial, residential and recreational improvements along the banks of the Colorado River in the Grand Valley, which starts with Palisade’s peaches and ends with mountain biking bliss in Loma, Colorado. Most of the upgrades are happening in Grand Junction, the Valley’s juggernaut. After years of nearly ignoring the river and lining its banks with salvage and junkyards, the city is turning to embrace and benefit from this invaluable natural resource.  

The Dos Rios project benefited from robust nonprofit, agency and foundation networks in the Grand Valley and from savvy funding strategies. One Riverfront used Forever Our Rivers grant funds to leverage other funding for the park. Leveraging money to grow funding potential is one of Forever Our Rivers’ founding principles, and the Foundation is proud to support this multifaceted community project. 

Other project partners and funders include the Colorado West Land Trust, Colorado Canyons Association, Colorado Parks and Wildlife, Mesa County Partners, Mesa County Health Department, Riverside Task Force, Colorado Health Foundation, Rocky Mountain Health Foundation, and the Junior Service League.