SCARBOROUGH — High school students took the first step last week in what will be a five-month process to monitor the health of Scarborough Marsh.

Owned and managed by the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, the more-than-3,000-acre estuary is the largest salt marsh in Maine and one of the largest in New England.

It serves as a resting, breeding and feeding ground for wildlife, as well as a popular destination for an annual average of 10,000 visitors drawn by a network of walking trails, as well as kayak and canoe rentals. 

But, like many of Southern Maine’s waters, the marsh’s health has been compromised by various threats, such as pollution, invasive plant species and rising water temperatures. 

Greg Bither, a science teacher at SHS and member of Friends of Scarborough Marsh, wanted his students, “the future caretakers of Scarborough Marsh,” to get hands-on experience by assisting in what he said would be the first continuous study of the marsh’s water quality in its entirety by monitoring the health of the tributaries. 

“There have been tests in specific locations, but I don’t believe anyone’s done an overall survey of the whole marsh,” Bither said. 

Water-quality issues due to pollution in the marsh go “way back,” according to Bither. Friends of Scarborough Marsh has identified eight monitoring points that are considered “problem areas,” specifically Mill Brook and Philips Brook. 

“A picture of all the water that dumps into the marsh will give us a good picture of where the marsh is,” Bither said. 

About a dozen students from Bither’s STEM class visited the marsh Nov. 26, to collect water samples that would later be tested for various quality parameters, including temperature, salinity and acidity.

Students also made observations about the vegetation and buildup in and around the marsh, as well as the water flow.

“(Friends of Scarborough Marsh is) trying to preserve the marsh for future generations, so I thought it’d be great to take the class out to get water samples to be part of a bigger effort,” Bither said. 

These measurements will serve as a baseline for data gathered during a volunteer effort sponsored by the state, which will start next year.

Bither said he hopes the activity inspired students to stay involved by volunteering once a full-time monitoring program with the Department of Environmental Protection begins next spring. He expects samples to be gathered once a week between May and September.

“It’s going to take more than one person,” Bither said. “Right now it’s just me … so we’ll have to recruit a bunch of people.”

One of Bither’s students, Maggie Amann, said she would be up to the task.

“It’s really cool to do this hands-on work and have a part in a project that will benefit our community and its future generations,” Amann, a sophomore, said. 

Quinton Wu, a freshman in Bither’s class, said it’s nice to get out of the classroom and conduct tests like last week’s out in the field.

Rather than a project simply turning into another mark in the grade book, Wu said it’s good to know that the information the class gathered will help Friends of Scarborough Marsh and other organizations assess the marsh’s health and consider what can be done to mitigate problems. 

“The more students we involve, the better off we’ll be,” Bither said. “The future of the marsh will be brighter. … It’s going to be their marsh eventually.” 

Jocelyn Van Saun can be reached at 781-3661, ext. 183 or [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter @JocelynVanSaun.

Freshman Quinton Wu, left, Greg Bither, who teaches science at Scarborough High School, and junior Artell Richardson gather water samples at Scarborough Marsh. 

Scarborough High School science teacher Greg Bither supervises as student Quinton Wu takes a temperature reading at one of the eight Scarborough Marsh monitoring points.