- Associated Press - Saturday, January 30, 2016

LEWISTOWN, Mont. (AP) - A group of Lewistown Middle School students are standing in front of a small crowd of homeowners, conservationists and government officials fielding questions about stream flow, back channels, and riprap along one section of Big Spring Creek.

It becomes evident as the students explain how the flooding of 2011 cut a new channel of the blue-ribbon stream through a field and abandoned its old channel - creating a whole host of problems - that this isn’t a typical science fair research project for these kids.

“It’s nice to know you’re doing something good to help the community out,” says Dalice Church, an eighth-grader. “It feels like there is much more to do.”

Church and some of her classmates have once again entered the Samsung “Solve for Tomorrow” science, technology, engineering and math contest. They have been named the state winners with their ideas on diverting some of the water flowing through the new channel of the creek back through the old channel.

They’ve earned their school $20,000 in new technology, according to eighth-grade science teacher Suzie Flentie, and if they keep going on at the national level, could earn up to $140,000.

But in doing this project, they’ve opened a whole new can of worms on what it takes to fix a problem as complex as a creek bed reflow, hence the discussion with homeowners, members of the Fergus County Conservation District and Fish, Wildlife and Parks on this snowy Wednesday afternoon in the basement of the sheriff’s department.

“I enjoy watching them get involved,” Flentie said. “I feel like they’ve developed a pretty good idea of the problem.”

The problem began when major rainfall created massive flooding of Big Spring Creek in and around Lewistown in 2011. The creek used to meander behind some trees and in front of homes along Rainbow Lane and Mill Stream Road.

It’s the reason Dennis Borud and his wife moved here in November 2010. They couldn’t wait for spring and summer with the creek flowing right underneath their deck.

“We thought, ‘Man, this is a nice place to settle,’” Borud recalls.

Monte Boettger and his family have lived in this neighborhood along Big Spring Creek since 1991. His wife always enjoyed fishing off their back porch. He’s always enjoyed getting to see the wildlife that comes through the area.

“When people live on a creek, a lot it is for the aesthetics,” he said. “It was a wildlife attraction. It was recreation. So that was taken away.”

The flooding undercut a lot of a field owned by Jack Stone that made a straight path for the stream, and thus the old channel that moved by Borud’s home and came flowing back around the bend at Boettger’s home was abandoned.

Now homeowners in that area get to experience some standing water and a little bit of back flow from the creek. It means they’ve got standing water next to their homes, which brings on a whole host of problems.

Borud said green algae floats up and their standing water is infested with mosquitoes.

“It stinks,” Borud said, using the word literally.

“All I’m asking is that we just get some flow,” Borud said. “That’s all I want, is fresh water.”

Boettger said after the flooding dissipated, at least six homeowners went through the application process in 2011 to get some kind of permitting to bring at least some of the creek flow back through the old channel.

“The suggestion was to wait for the creek to stabilize,” he said.

Boettger believes FWP and other officials are hesitant to make the changes because there’s a chance flooding could happen again and erode all of the investments made into fixing the problem.

But then Flentie and seventh-grade science teacher Steve Paulson’s students started getting involved.

Last year, Paulson had students measuring water quality and sediment along the channel. This year, Flentie, who advises the GIS club, took students out to do more mapping of the channel and discuss possible solutions - everything from a gate to a culvert - to divert half of the water back into the old channel.

But that’s not the kids’ only solution to the problem. They’re working with shop teachers to create bat boxes and tree swallow boxes that can be installed along the old stream bed. The bats and swallows will help with the insect problem, students said, so that the mosquitoes and other insects that plague homeowners can be mitigated.

The students went around to all of the neighbors asking them to sign a petition of sorts that supported the idea of a culvert, gate or insect removal.

Neighbors were more than willing to work with the kids.

“I think it’s a good deal,” Borud said. “I was just down in the dumps for four or five months after the flood.”

But as the students learned, neither idea will be easy to implement.

Stone told the crowd and the kids he’d be willing to let a third of the water be diverted back into the old channel. But he doesn’t want to completely abandon the stream that is now flowing through his field and that has created a giant gash.

“I sympathize with people,” Stone said. “I think all of you (kids) are doing a worthwhile project.”

Clint Smith, fisheries biologist with FWP, said there are several permits that would have to be obtained for the diversion, and he doesn’t know how successful it would be.

“I fear the slacker water would deposit sediment and back itself up again,” he said. “I fear it would be a difficult maintenance issue.”

There is also a small concern that the bats could carry rabies and chemicals used for weed spray in that area would harm the swallows.

In order to do the more extensive project, students would have to get a permit from the Fergus Conservation District, which won’t happen without an engineer-approved design for the culvert or gate. They would have to get permitting from the Department of Environmental Quality and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, to name a few.

“Your kids will get a good lesson in government bureaucracy,” Smith said.

Eighth-grader Sam Fulbright’s eyes didn’t appear too glazed over by the complex discussion.

“We’ve learned a lot,” he said. “We get to see different points of view. It’s sounding like a lot more work.”

Those who lost their stream access are willing to do something to help and are supportive of the kids’ efforts.

“It’s going to be a big challenge for them, but I think it’s a great idea,” said Russ Dunnington, who owns several pieces of property on Rainbow Lane. “The red tape they have to go through is enormous. We all want to pitch in, but there is a limit to that.”

As far as their place in the Samsung competition, Flentie said the kids have to submit a three-minute video outlining their project before they can be considered as one of the top 15 projects in the Samsung competition in early February.

If they make it to that level, a small group of students will have to travel to New York to present their project and then online voting will take place to pick the top five projects across the country. The school could then qualify for $140,000 in new technology (in 2014, Sunburst middle school students won the national contest for their project).

Besides the big prize, Flentie said the kids are motivated and have taken a serious interest in the work - obstacles and all.

“It’s overwhelming, but it’s a good learning process,” she said. “If they can’t implement a plan, it won’t be because it wasn’t a good plan. This is real science. This is what it’s like to work with natural resources.”

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Information from: Great Falls Tribune, https://www.greatfallstribune.com

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