CLAY, Pa. — Under the cover of trees hidden at the back of a cow pasture along a quiet country road, two dozen youths are pushing large rocks and logs into a stream.
It might sound like vandalism, an oddly coordinated teenage rebellion, but look a little closer and you find the young people are students at the Lancaster County Youth Conservation School building a sediment trap to improve the water quality of Middle Creek.
The construction is called a log-faced stone deflector, said Karl Lutz, stream habitat section chief at the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission who has been helping with the project for most of the program’s 35-year existence.
The deflector consists of logs making a triangle shape. One edge runs along the bank, while the other two sides jut into the stream. The structure is then filled with rocks.
The device “creates a pattern of circular water” that forces the water slightly uphill, slows it down and traps silt, Lutz said.
While Middle Creek is already fairly healthy, the device will be another small step in cleaning up the Chesapeake Bay watershed.
The deflector also provides a permanent habitat for fish, Lutz said. Fish like to hide under overhangs, but often these are temporary shelters that are created — and soon destroyed — by stream bank erosion.
Caleb Greiner and Jared Groff, two friends from Manheim participating in the school, started the day by helping haul a log into the creek. They stood on either side of the stout trunk and carried it with logging tongs and help from another pair of students.
After the three logs, ranging from 5 to 8 feet in length, were in place, the students, mostly the boys, took turns hammering rebar pins into holes that adult volunteers had drilled in the wood.
They shouted encouragement when their classmates hit the pin and offered collective groans when the sledgehammer glanced off the bark or splashed the water instead.
After the logs were firmly secured, the construction team traded tasks. Half of the students had been upstream learning about stream life, and that group got the job of filling the log triangle with rocks.
A team from Flyway Excavating of Lititz, which donated all the materials for the project, was on hand to transport the rocks with a skidloader from a pile in the field to the stream bank.
The youths then rolled the rocks, which were up to a foot long, into place under the direction of camp counselors and Flyway workers.
Meanwhile, the log-placing team was now scouring the creek for macroinvertebrates. Those are spineless animals that are large enough to see without a microscope, said Hannah Brubach, an intern with the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.
These critters are susceptible to pollution, so finding them in a stream is a good indicator of stream health, she said.
Crayfish, which the students found in abundance, are an exception to that rule. They can tolerate almost any conditions and are “not a good indicator,” she said.
Caleb Greiner’s group netted a more interesting find, a several-inch-long hellgrammite. Brubach estimated the centipedelike invertebrate was 4 or 5 years old.
The group also found a clam, which Brubach said is an invasive species.
Jeremy Weaver of Lititz caught a minnow. Brubach praised the catch but said he should release the tiny fish. The group was not quite ready to examine their finds, and fish need the moving water of the stream to dissolve oxygen so they can breathe.
Log-faced stone deflectors can be built only with a permit from the Department of Environmental Protection, Lutz said. The conservation school had the permit for the project, which is hardly the first for this stretch of Middle Creek.
Robert and Ruth Fox, the owners of Clay Farm, where the project took place, have welcomed the students for several years and end up with a new stream-control fixture basically every year.
The Foxes, whom the Conservation District honored last year with an Outstanding Cooperator Award, have implemented numerous conservation practices on their farm.
On this sunny day, the students benefited from one of those installations — a riparian buffer, a stand of trees along a creek that controls runoff and shades the water from excessive sun.
The project shows “how (students) can help the farmer,” said Sallie Gregory, the education coordinator from the Lancaster County Conservation District, which runs the school.
The stream water-quality project was only a small part of the Youth Conservation School experience.
The students lived for the week at the Northern Lancaster County Game and Fish Protective Association in Denver. The club shuts down for a week each summer to accommodate the tenting students, Gregory said.
Lancaster-area sportsmen’s clubs sponsor the county students who attend, covering almost their entire tuition. Lutz said the Lancaster County program is now a rarity. Once numerous, most county-based conservation schools have closed in the past few decades, he said.
The program is about to get international exposure, too.
A film crew from EarthEcho International was on hand to film the service project. The group, founded by Philippe Cousteau, grandson of ocean explorer Jacques-Yves Cousteau, is filming a series of short documentaries about youth groups doing service work to improve the Chesapeake Bay watershed.
So far, the group is shooting the less-than-10-minute videos in four states and the District of Columbia. Each will highlight a different facet of water conservation that will help heal dead zones in the bay, said Stacey Rafalowski, EarthEcho’s program manager.
“Water is the thing that connects all of us,” the South Carolina native told the students before they began their work.
While the old adage says that young people are the future, “we believe you’re the now,” she said.
The series, to be narrated by Philippe Cousteau, seeks to convey that message by emphasizing the efforts of youth organizations.
Cousteau did not attend the July 25 project, but Rafalowski said he will come to Clay Farm in September to shoot his part of the video.
EarthEcho is set to post the first video in the series on Oct. 10 on its website. A new documentary will then go online each week for the next two months.<\c> Photos by Philip Gruber
Students in the Youth Conservation School move rocks into place.
Hannah Brubach helps Jeremy Weaver of Lititz identify macroinvertebrates.
Youths carry a log into Middle Creekn for use in the deflector.