Kirby Olson is from rural Clinton in western Minnesota. He is an aquatic superhero. Every week, all summer long, Kirby and a group of friends survey Big Stone Lake for three aquatic invasive species (AIS) that threaten its health: Eurasian milfoil, curly leaf pondweed and zebra mussels.
“All three of these species are in lakes, rivers and streams across Minnesota,” says Kirby. “They came here from other parts of the world because large container ships didn’t know they were hiding in their ballasts. They are really good hitchhikers, but not good for our water.”
It was three years ago that Kirby was introduced to aquatic invasive species by two Extension 4-H educators. After spending some time learning about the problem, several youth wanted to take action. They engineered remote operated vehicles (ROVs) and attached waterproof cameras to survey the quality of local waterways. They also learned how to test for invasive species, like raking lake beds and gathering water samples.
Working together to do more
Once each summer, these youth undertake a massive observation project. With the support of Extension educator Suzanne Sousa and other caring adults, they spread out across Big Stone County and collect samples from as many bodies of water as possible. Kirby and his friends want to be sure information about their community’s water system is accurate and up to date, but they can’t do it alone.
“None of us can drive, so we’re really lucky Suzanne and our parents are able to help us,” says Kirby. “It’s a fun project, but a lot of work. We can only do it if we work together.”
But even a county-wide water survey wasn’t enough to satisfy this group’s desire to protect the waters of Big Stone County. Some of the lakes and rivers they tested were already infected. And water quality was deteriorating. Could they stop a total invasion or was it just too late?
“I got sort of discouraged. The problem is really big,” reflected Kirby. “Sometimes I worry that we can’t stop the invasive species from taking over. But Suzanne suggested we get other people to do the work with us.”
That idea captured the imagination of Kirby and his friends. They set off to find educational resources from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and other agencies that protect water. The youth set up teaching stations at fishing competitions and community festivals. They offered to speak at schools and for local organizations. Their message is simple and clear: everybody can help to protect lakes, rivers and streams. Since 2017, Kirby and his friends have educated over 6,000 residents and visitors of Big Stone County.
“Clean, drain and dry. No matter where you live around the world or how old you are, you can make a difference,” says Kirby. “That’s what I’ve learned from being part of this 4-H project.”
National recognition for environmental stewardship
Kirby and his friends are members of the Big Stone County 4-H AIS Detectors and they were recently honored in Washington D.C. for their local environmental stewardship. The club received the President’s Environmental Youth Award for region five, which includes most of the Midwest. Kirby was one of the 10 youth who were able to make the trip.
What’s on Kirby’s schedule for 2020?
“Oh, we’ve got a lot of work to do still,” he said. “We want to help kids like us in other parts of Minnesota to protect their local water systems from invasive species. We’re going to spread this information as far as we can.”
Learn more about 4-H Water & Wetlands project.