Environmental Science Field Trip Colorado Mountain College

The ENV101 Field Trip helps students achieve the following learning outcomes:

From unit 1:

  1. Define environment, environmental science, and ecology.
  2. Discuss the stages of conservation, preservation, and environmental activism.
  3. Describe the scientific method of inquiry.

From unit 2:

  1. Define and explain how the laws of thermodynamics regulate ecosystems.
  2. Summarize the ecological significance of trophic levels, succession and biomes.
  3. Summarize the principles of toxicology and risk assessment.
  4. Explain the water cycle and its relationship to freshwater resources.

From unit 3:

  1. Demonstrate the ability to collect and analyze field data.

From unit 5:

  1. Explain the water cycle and its relationship to freshwater resources.
  2. Describe the geologic rock cycle and geological hazards.
  3. Describe the types and effects of water, air, and soil pollution and how their quality affects biodiversity.

The Headwaters in Continental Divide Country 

Here in Continental Divide country, Colorado, USA six major river basins originate. There are CMC campuses in several of these basins (trivia- which ones?)

all river basins in Colorado

photo credit: https://coloradoriverwatch.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/03/allbasins.png

General Outlook for the Field Trip

The field trip allows us to ponder the shared resource our watershed represents. We will meet at a campus and travel on foot to a nearby river.

The Blue River, a tributary of the Colorado River flows next to the Breckenridge campus.

blue river watershed

The Eagle River, another tributary of the Colorado River flows next to the Edwards campus.

eagle river watershed

The Roaring Fork river- you guessed it, another Colorado river tributary- connects the Aspen, Carbondale and Glenwood campuses.

roaring fork watershed

The Arkansas River flows on the eastern slope in its own basin. It connects the Leadville, Buena Vista, and Salida campuses.

arkansas river watershed

We will visit these sites this semester. On June 21st, we will visit the Blue (Breckenridge) and Eagle rivers (Edwards). On June 28th, we will visit the Roaring Fork (Aspen). There is only one student on the Arkansas, but I will be there anytime! I used to live in Salida. 🙂 You tell me when to come…

On the field trip, we will discuss what a watershed is, think about the Continental Divide and its implications for directing water resources that end up in the Gulf of Mexico (eastern slope) or the Pacific Ocean (western slope). I started and used to run the Ski Naturalist program at Keystone and then Monarch ski areas. I used to engage skiers who came on the tour by telling them- “You are skiing on the drinking water for more than half the United States! Take care. Be a good steward of our high country.” As residents of this majestic landscape, we must (and do!) lead the nation in sustainability. But we could do more. Learning more is a great place to start.

Colorado river watershed

photo credit: wikicommons

On our field trip, we will think about stream order, a term that describes the size and dynamics of the stream. As a stream descends from the high country, it becomes larger and slower. It becomes less rocky and sedimentation increases. Toxins and pollutants accumulate in rivers as they flow through urban centers and near industrial and military waste. And the biggest problem of all: as rivers flow, we take from them the water itself. We use it for agriculture, landscaping, recreation, domestic, municipal and industrial purposes. The Colorado river doesn’t even flow to the ocean anymore. What was once a broad fertile floodplain, the Colorado River Delta is a mud flat with persistent environmental issues.

stream order

to read more about stream order, visit photo credit: https://usgs-mrs.cr.usgs.gov/NHDHelp/WebHelp/NHD_Help/Introduction_to_the_NHD/Feature_Attribution/Stream_Order.htm

The ecosystem of the river (called the riparian ecosystem) changes as it flows downstream.  Although the Blue and Eagle rivers are not the same river, we will approach them at different points in their elevation. The Blue River in Breck is much closer to its headwaters. Although still raging at times, it is nowhere near as large as the Eagle River in Edwards. The vegetation along the banks of each river is completely different and although we could throw a tennis ball across the Blue river near campus, it would be very difficult to do this in Edwards on the Eagle River (but we will try for the sake of measuring the width of the river).  In each stage of the field trip, we will collect the same data. What is gained by participating in both stages is this perspective of stream order. 

The headwaters of the Blue River originate at Quandary Peak on the Continental Divide just south of Breckenridge on Hoosier pass. Notice how the slope of the landscape changes dramatically from the snow covered peak to the alpine wetlands in the foreground. The low slopes of the wetland basins accumulate water and reduce its velocity. The  Salicaceae family of plants includes  cottonwoods and willows that are facultative phreatophytes whose roots need to be in the water table. They characterize the riparian ecosystem.

quandary peak-6-21-19

The Blue River near the Breckenridge campus at 9,600ft in the elevation. Spring 2019 field trip 3/29/19*

Blue river near the breckenridge campus

The Blue River near the Breckenridge campus at 9,600ft in the elevation. Summer 2019 field trip 6/21/19

blue river at CMC-6-21-19
blue river at CMC with students-6-21-19

The Eagle river by the Edwards campus at 7,200ft in elevation. Spring 2019 field trip 3/29/19*

eagle river by edwards campus

The Eagle river by the Edwards campus at 7,200ft in elevation. Summer 2019 field trip 6/21/19

eagle river-6-21-19

*yes, you are reading that right- these pictures were taken on the same day 3-29-19, a couple of hours apart but over 2,000 ft range of elevation.

*Unless otherwise noted, maps are from the wikicommons. The photos are attributed to M. Gaddis.