Emptied Van Norden Reservoir gives students unique research opportunity | SierraSun.com

Emptied Van Norden Reservoir gives students unique research opportunity

Special to the Sun
Students conducted research around the ecology of Donner summit and how the meadow is adjusting to this ecological shift.
Courtesy Megan Seifert |

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Visit headwatersscienceinstitute.org/past-student-research to see more presentations from class projects.

NORDEN, Calif. — Students from San Francisco University High School’s AP Environmental Studies Class recently took advantage of a unique research opportunity in the Van Norden Meadow, part of the Royal Gorge Property conserved by the Truckee Donner Land Trust.

When the land trust acquired the property in 2012, it was required to mitigate Van Norden Reservoir, a man-made lake dating back to the 1920s. The reservoir was drained at the end of June this year, exposing soils that have been primarily submerged for last 100 years.

The students came to Soda Springs under the guidance of Headwaters Science Institute to create independent scientific research projects around this uncommon ecological event.

Headwaters Science Institute is a local nonprofit dedicated to providing area high school students opportunities for science education.

Spencer Eusden, program director for Headwaters Science Institute, was thrilled with this year’s trip.

“From an educational and scientific perspective, this is an incredible opportunity for these students,” Eusden said. “Ecological shifts like these are fairly rare and almost exclusively taught through case studies in the classroom. Here students were able to create scientific projects and collect data around how the meadow is actively adjusting.”

Projects conducted by students ranged from surveying amphibian and aquatic insect populations to comparing the water quality of isolated pools in the Yuba River and Castle Creek. They also analyzed soil nutrients from the historic reservoir bed up to the nearby mountains.

The duo of Nick Michael and Kate Elkort compared levels of soil nutrients to soils in the adjacent meadow. Their project focused on the three main nutrients plants need to survive, nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium.

Michael and Elkfort found that despite the surrounding area being incredibly low in biologically available nitrogen and phosphorus, the historic reservoir bed had much higher levels of both. Their data also found that both locations had comparably high levels of potassium, which they attributed to the granite-dominated local geology. Soils in the reservoir bed also contained more moisture than soils in the meadow.

When asked about how this difference in moisture and nutrients could affect future of the reservoir bed, the students hypothesized that since the area is relatively fertile it will re-vegetate and move through succession fairly quickly.

However, as Kate said, “We should come back next year to test this further.”

This article was provided by Headwaters Science Institute. Visit headwatersscienceinstitute.org to learn more.