Waterway Stewardship from The US to Russia

A group of elementary school students trudges through the woods and emerge onto the bank of a stream. On the still, warm day, it’s quiet enough to hear the water rippling and the clacking of stones under their boots. One of the students grabs a long dipnet and submerges it in the creek while other grade-schoolers peer into the water. The students are searching for crayfish, mayflies, nymphs, snails, and leeches, cross-referencing information sheets and trying to identify the critters. They’re having an absolute blast, but they are also learning a great deal – the creatures they are looking for are all benthic macroinvertebrates, small animals that live in streams and ponds and are crucial for determining the overall health of a body of water. Whatever they discovered in the stream will help reveal the well-being of the natural world around them.  

These imaginary students are taking part in a hypothetical scenario designed by Waterway Education and Protection: The Next Generation, a bilateral collaborative project undertaken by Bard College’s Center for Civic Engagement (CCE) and Astrakhan State University’s Ecology Squad student group. With both universities located near flourishing watershed environments, the protection of these local waterways is important to the surrounding communities. To help engender intelligent and enthusiastic stewardship of crucial watershed environments, the bilateral team of students has developed a “toolkit” of documents and activities to pull communities into their local rivers and streams.

Bard College is located near the Saw Kill Watershed, a 26 square mile region in New York state through which the Saw Kill creek runs. The unique lay of the Saw Kill Watershed promotes biodiversity and makes it home to a number of rare species. The Saw Kill drains directly into the Hudson River, and is also a site where treated water is re-released into natural water systems.  

Astrakhan is located in the Volga River watershed. The Volga River is a critically important body of water in Russia, flowing a length of almost 2,200 miles from central Russia into the Caspian Sea. Eleven of Russia’s largest cities are located in the Volga River watershed, along with some of the world’s largest water reservoirs. Because of these unique attributes, the Volga River is an integral part of Russian cultural mythology, folklore, and literature.

“Just as the Saw Kill Watershed Community protects a small tributary of the Hudson, the Astrakhan State University’s Eco-Squad protects smaller channels throughout the Volga delta region, like the Churka. A river clean-up of the Churka, reminiscent of the Riverkeeper Sweep on the Hudson, had high school students collecting trash that floated onto land during the floods of the Spring wet season” write Tom O’Dowd and Bard CCE Science Outreach Coordinator Siira Rieschl. “It seems that Russia (like the US) has its share of people who respect the health and beauty of the water … hands-on activity encourages youth to face head-on the health of the watershed in a way that tangibly complements their in-classroom experience.”

In late July and early August 2016, the Russian students from Astrakhan visited the United States. While in Annandale-on-Hudson, New York, they toured drinking and wastewater treatment plants and laboratories, and met with state and regional water experts to learn about the local political and environmental circumstances. They also had the opportunity to travel to New York City and tour the Science Barge, a prototype sustainable urban farm that floats on the Hudson River, serving as a regional hub for researching and monitoring the Hudson River estuary and related urban watershed issues.  

In early October, the US project partners, including two student leaders from Bard College, travelled to Astrakhan, Russia. Over the course of several meetings with scientists, professors, graduate students, and business representatives, they learned about how Russian citizens are educated and trained to become citizen scientists. In addition to touring sites of cultural and natural importance like the Astrakhan Kremlin, the group visited a sturgeon nursery on the Volga River.

“Exploring hands-on the Russian approach to waterway education was incredibly interesting, from touring various ASU labs to visiting Lukoil and a sturgeon farm, but I think the most unexpected progress came from our casual conversations,” reflects Siira Rieschl. “This experience helped underline our similar passion for empowering the next generation to prioritize sustainability and water health.”

Over the course of the two visits, the students and participants were all trained in the best practices of community organizing and waterway protection, and were constantly brainstorming ideas for the Waterway Protection Toolkit.

One of the key products of all of hard work is the 63-page Waterway Protection toolkit document full of inspiring ideas, engaging activities, and salient advice for school teachers, college students, and prospective environmental educators working with students between the ages of 10 and 15. The toolkit offers communal education activities, and splits them into three categories of engagement: Explore, Identify, and Act. Activities grouped under Explore are “about discovered the beauty and diversity of your local environment.” Identify encourages one to “[delve] deeper into the science of waterway protection.” Act comprises a series of activities about “becoming civically engaged – taking action – from hands-on protection of resources to speaking up for the environment in public forums.” 

The earlier scenario with the children bearing dipnets is a potential scene from the “Underwater Living” module taken from the Identify section of the toolkit. Because many benthic macroinvertebrates are particularly sensitive to water quality, their presence (or absence) is particularly useful for determining the health of a given body of water. While snails, leeches, and beetles are more tolerant of pollution, crayfish and stoneflies only live in healthy waters, and so searching for macroinvertebrates is a valuable exercise for demonstrating the effects of human meddling on the environment.

An activity from the Explore category might have the schoolchildren building 3D topographical maps of the watershed using cardboard, or visualizing the water cycle using a Bunsen burner and a beaker. Exploring could be as simple as taking a walk by a local stream and soaking in the sights! The Act category is more hands on – it could be direct action like planting trees, cleaning up plastic trash, or having students identify and remove problematic invasive species from local river habitats in the “Stop the Invaders!” activity. Another Act project encourage students to write letters-to-the-editor and to pursue similar advocacy.

Siira Rieschl drives home the importance of collaborative development of the toolkit: “Understanding the differences in our approaches has been incredibly valuable for me to fully grasp our own drive behind our programs. Our biggest connection, besides our passion for river ecology and watershed health, is a determination to spread knowledge and passion about these very important topics. Teaching young students is incredibly important since they are the leaders of the future; this is fundamental to both our programs.”

The importance of protecting the environment cannot be understated, and environmental stewardship is sharply in focus for the US-Russia Social Expertise Exchange. SEE believes the key to building a healthier planet and a more ecologically conscious society is international collaboration. In connecting scientists, environmental experts, students, and youth advocates in the US and Russia, SEE’s work is creating a new generation of environmental stewards that isn’t afraid to think outside the box.

As Invited Professional of the project Tom O’Dowd succinctly puts it, “In-person exchanges with professionals, students, and people from a different country does so much for our abilities to ground our work in the real world as well as helps develop empathy and mutual respect. Given tough political times, collaborations on environmental education and protection is critically important for the future of our planet and all its people.”