The need for improved water resource protection is urgent, yet land-use activities increasingly imperil our water supplies. With that in mind, we’re excited to present a three-part blog series, “Watershed Paths to Water Protection,” on citizen stewardship of water resources by Karen Schneller-McDonald, author of Connecting the Drops: A Citizens’ Guide to Protecting Water Resources.
Watersheds connect people in multiple communities through a shared interest in water. Water doesn’t respect municipal boundaries, so watershed protection encourages water users to form partnerships—not only among towns and villages, but also with colleges and universities. Even if you don’t live in a college town, chances are good that the watershed that supplies your drinking water includes a college or university campus.
The college connection
The Saw Kill Watershed Community (SKWC) in Dutchess County, New York, includes portions of three towns (Red Hook, Milan, Rhinebeck), the village of Red Hook, and the Bard College campus within its 22-square-mile watershed. Interest in the stream’s water quality began with water quality sampling in the late 1970s and with several ecological studies originating at Bard College. The sampling program was revived two years ago, along with development of the Bard Water Lab. These activities led to the formation of a community watershed group, with a leadership team of five individuals from the college and from local communities. Their job is to maintain the partnership’s balance, and the group’s survival. The college provides open access to the lab for interested residents. Once a month, five teams of students and local residents take water samples from fifteen locations on the Saw Kill and bring them to the lab for analysis.
The Saw Kill Watershed Community mission: “Protect the Saw Kill watershed and its ecological, recreational, and historic resources through hands-on science, education, and advocacy.”
How do students and community benefit from this partnership?
The college brings us the science, and the town provides the setting for applying the science to local water problems. But the partnership is more than water sampling, as it has included a variety of activities, such as putting together an aquarium to showcase glass eels and stream insects for kids at a community event; participating in the 2017 Earth Day March for Science; planting trees; going to a Town Board meeting; presenting research; listening to residents’ concerns on topics ranging from flooding and septic systems to dams, culverts, and road salt; and a session of letter writing to elected officials.
While focusing on the protection of shared water resources, the watershed group benefits students and local residents alike. In addition to learning the science, students apply what they learn in class to real-life work in the community by:
- Practicing leadership, communications, and social media skills
- Working with local residents on water protection projects that incorporate science and community values
- Applying scientific information to help problem-solve local water issues
- Contributing their energy and ideas to local situations
- Learning how to run an interesting meeting, provide hospitality (e.g. refreshments), encourage community participation in activities and events
- Translating science into terms the public can understand, improving the watershed group’s ability to provide information to local officials.
The watershed community is relatively small; local residents have limited volunteer time. By partnering with students and faculty, residents gain:
- An influx of energetic, enthusiastic volunteers with a shared interest in the group’s growth and vitality
- Access to science information and exposure to new research
- Help with action-oriented approaches to water protection (e.g., letter-writing, public comment, tree planting)
- Use of the Bard Water Lab to evaluate water quality parameters
- Support for meetings, presentations, website management
- Institutional continuity and administrative support for watershed group management.
How do classes participate?
In the fall of 2016 I visited Eli Dueker’s Water class at Bard to discuss water protection issues with students, and was encouraged by the thoughtfulness of their questions and their ability to look beneath the surface to understand water problems. When Robyn Smyth assigned the 2017 Water class the task of reporting on the source of drinking water and the fate of wastewater in their home towns, the students’ presentations took us from New York City and Niagara Falls to a small rural town in Maine, and from San Francisco to Los Angeles. Armed with that knowledge, students progressed to evaluating reports on water quality. This is just a glimpse of the potential for involving students of all ages in water issues in their back yards. That engagement and interest is critical to understanding how watersheds affect each of us personally. It’s key to encouraging future water protectors.
This fall, the watershed group asked the Water class for help with evaluating stream buffers along the Saw Kill. Students reviewed detailed stream maps and assessed buffer width. From their work, the watershed group will compile an inventory of areas along the stream where existing healthy buffers should be protected, and areas where buffer restoration is needed. The students’ interest encouraged me, as they shared dilemmas about how to evaluate buffer “problem” areas on the maps.
The students help the watershed group with information, but what strikes me most is their enthusiasm and interest. That energy is critically important to local volunteers. No citizens’ group has an unlimited supply.
The SKWC is considering other opportunities for teaming with Bard students, including outreach to high school and elementary students via stream biomonitoring and other science programs.
THuRST partners are Bard College, Siena College, Cornell University, Pace University, Sarah Lawrence College, and SUNY Cobleskill
Additional collaboration is available through “Thurst” (The Hudson River Subwatershed & Tributary Research Network), a partnership of colleges and universities that addresses water research of scientific and community significance. Participant colleges representing five watersheds are working together on a pilot project to determine how land use and watershed conditions affect winter salt transport to the Hudson River’s tributaries. The partnership pools resources, provides collaborative learning for students, and will produce useful information for local watershed groups.
Into the future
Water protection is a long-term commitment. Many watershed groups last only as long as the stamina of their founders; often the task of keeping a group going is left to one or two community leaders who eventually burn out. In other cases, watershed groups affiliated with a college or university have been absorbed into these institutions at the expense of local resident participation. The Red Hook group has set its sights on making this town/village/college partnership a long-term effort that works for everyone. After all, we share the water!
Too often, news headlines about water problems are a recurring “you have to be kidding me” horror story about people in power demonstrating utter disregard for taking care of water resources: Contaminants seeping into rivers, lakes and wetlands. Pollution ruining wells. Flooding. Competition for water supply. Those who work to protect watersheds are susceptible to discouragement and burnout. Students bring new energy to these efforts, refreshing the rest of us and encouraging us to look to the future with optimism. Whether we are eighty or eighteen, we share a common interest in keeping our waters clean and abundant—celebrating the science and the community that enable us to work together.
Karen Schneller-McDonald is the author of Connecting the Drops: A Citizens’ Guide to Protecting Water Resources. A wetland and water resources specialist, she is the president of Hickory Creek Consulting LLC.