Part of the Knowing Our Waters Project
By Kirk Jalbert, Manager of Community-Based Research and Engagement
Maps by Matt Kelso, Manager of Data and Technology
Prior articles of the Knowing Our Waters digital storytelling series have brought attention to how community-based water monitoring efforts are responding to the risks of oil and gas extraction in the Marcellus Shale. These issues have ranged from concerns about improper disposal of wastewater, to the problems of shipping drilling muds and solids, to landfills in New York State. One of the consistent findings that comes from studies of such community-based water monitoring efforts is that people who participate in these programs are often older adults, typically 40-60 years of age (Jalbert et al.; Brasier et al.). This feature can be due to the fact that older adults often have spare time to do public service. In other instances these volunteers may have a personal stake in monitoring watersheds neighboring their property, or are driven by a desire to protect their families from potential water pollution threats.
In the Marcellus Shale region, many monitoring groups welcome the involvement of younger generations in their programs. However, they also point to the difficulties of finding younger volunteers who see watershed monitoring as an important way to ensure environmental sustainability in their community.
In this fourth installment of the Knowing Our Waters series we turn our attention to how water monitoring is being used as a tool to create lifelong environmental stewardship in younger generations – specifically through a program called Creek Connections. By introducing water monitoring into primary and secondary education, these programs may indeed create effective pathways to increase the diversity of future volunteer monitoring efforts and build long-term capacity for environmental stewardship.
History of Creek Connections
While there are a number of programs that aim to bring youth into watershed protection in the Marcellus Shale, this article focuses on one of the more prominent efforts: a partnership between Allegheny College and regional K-12 schools called Creek Connections. The origins of Creek Connections can be traced to French Creek, a headwater of the Allegheny River in Pennsylvania, which is one of the most biologically diverse streams in the Northeast United States. It is estimated to host more than 80 species of fish and 26 species of freshwater mussels. Because of its high value, nationally and regionally, many projects have worked to protect the watershed over the years including improvements to agricultural and sewer runoff, controlling invasive species, and reestablishing riparian buffer zones in order to reduce sedimentation and maintain cold water fishing habitats. Two professors at Allegheny College also realized the potential to use French Creek as an avenue to create robust environmental education programs in local public schools. The “French Creek Environmental Education Project” was thus launched in 1995 with funding from the Toyota USA Foundation in five nearby schools.
By 1999 the French Creek Environmental Education Project had grown to work with 22 schools throughout Western Pennsylvania and neighboring states, and was renamed Creek Connections. Today Creek Connections supports a wide range of watershed centric programming with more than 40 schools. Over these many years the program has turned the region’s waterways into “outdoor environmental laboratories” by working with students to collect water samples for a range of testing protocols. Meanwhile, in the classroom, these students learn about how stream conditions can change due to impacts from resource extraction, agricultural runoff, deforestation and expanding urbanization.
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Map of schools participating in Creek Connections, the watersheds in which they monitor, and nearby oil & gas wells. View fullscreen
A Year-Round Educational Experience
Many teachers note that classroom-based environmental education programs must contend with the problems of longevity. Sustained engagements with a particular topic can be hampered by curriculum modules that may delve into watershed health concerns for a few weeks out of the year, but are not geared to longer-term field research. Additional issues arise when teachers must weigh how they will use limited school resources. Program managers at Creek Connections encountered these stumbling blocks when forming early partnerships with schools. As a result of these learned lessons Creek Connections has evolved to provide a range of opportunities for student participation, as well as structured programming to enroll teachers to invest in water monitoring programs.