Finding a sliver of shoreline shade to dull the midday heat, Sarah Schaefer squints into a hand-held apparatus to get a salinity reading for a water sample just pulled from the Potomac River.

“It’s barely brackish, not as salty as we might have figured for this location,” said the rising junior at North Stafford High School. “The rains we’ve had recently could have affected that.”

The 14 other students surrounding her on the beach at Westmoreland State Park Thursday all nod as her results are added to a water-quality chart with measures of everything from a low nitrogen reading to a to a water temperature of 84 degrees.

The exercise was part of a week-long crash course in leadership and conservation offered by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.

The students, who were selected from schools across Virginia, started the week on a small farmstead in Swoope, near Staunton, where they saw that some simple changes on one farm’s practices had a major impact on the water quality on a tributary of the Middle River.

A subsequent day took them to an EPA Superfund Site, AVTEX Fibers Inc. near Front Royal, where the students saw how the once-toxic site is being cleansed and repurposed.

After the group canoed on the Shenandoah River and spent two nights in campgrounds and then two days at Westmoreland State Park, they were to continue on to the CBF headquarters in Annapolis.

There, the Virginia students were to connect with four similar teams coming from other Chesapeake Bay states. For two days there, the students would continue their study and create a multi-team presentation for the closing night event highlighting the 50th anniversary of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.

During a break in their activities in Westmoreland County on Thursday, I got a chance to talk to some local students excited to be part of the program.

Schaefer said she was drawn to the program because she knows that she wants to pursue an education based in STEM subjects, “and this was a way to test the waters in this [environmental science] field, no pun intended.”

Andres Esparsa, a rising junior at Brooke Point High School, said the time he’s spent with family on the water in Stafford made him interested in the course.

“It is a little disappointing to learn of all the environmental challenges and problems,” he said. “But it was also encouraging to see that one person can make a difference.”

He mentioned the steps one farmer who talked to the group has taken to keep cattle out of streams on the farm, reduce runoff by planting trees and other measures.

Kiara Madeam, a rising junior at Colonial Force High School, said she applied for the course partly because she hasn’t lived in the area long, and saw it as a way to learn more about the Chesapeake Bay and the region.

“It’s been really interesting,” she said, noting that the concepts she’s learning have helped her to understand the many factors involved in conservation. “And I’d really never camped much before, so it was cool to do that,” she said.

Thursday morning at the park, the students spent time with W. Tayloe Murphy, the former Virginia legislator and Virginia Secretary of Natural Resources.

The chief patron of what’s known as the Chesapeake Bay Act, which manages development along the bay and its tributaries, gave the students a short master class in conservation history, and advice on how to make a difference.

He told them they should not accept the “substantially decreased” health and condition of the Bay as it exists today. They should know that it can and should be worlds better.

“When I was a boy, my mother would ask me to go out and gather some soft crabs for dinner,” he told the students. “I could do that in 45 minutes, not something you can do today.”

He also implored the students to get involved in conservation topics they care about, noting that at a recent public hearing on fracking in Westmoreland County, he thought the most moving speaker was a young Washington and Lee High School student who gave the day’s most eloquent plea for a moratorium.

“Educate yourself on an environmental issue and speak to your elected leaders and they will hear you,” he said. “You are the face of the future.”

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Rob Hedelt: 540/374-5415

rhedelt@freelancestar.com

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