As Erin Stretz paddles her kayak through the pond at a local senior living center to check the water quality, the residents watch in fascination.
Stretz is the assistant director of science and stewardship at the Stony Brook Millstone Watershed Association in Pennington, New Jersey and she’s here to help the living center monitor and manage the algae levels in their pond as part of the River-Friendly Program. “Every time I go [out on the pond], I’m teaching a new group of residents how to use the water quality meter,” says Stretz. “When you’re out in the community, you get these off-the-cuff chances to speak with people and that’s usually where you make the most impact.”
The Stony Brook Millstone Watershed Association started the River-Friendly Program in the early 2000’s as a way for local businesses, golf courses, schools and residents of central New Jersey to certify that their land stewardship practices promote clean water and a healthy environment. The program’s mission was revitalized in 2014 with a leadership grant from the RBC Blue Water Project and has kept growing since then. In total, the Stony Brook Millstone Watershed Association has received $86,000 in grants from the RBC Blue Water Project, all of which helps support the health of watersheds in central New Jersey.
The River-Friendly Program makes measurable impacts to water quality by providing specific actions anyone can take to make their land management practices more river-friendly. This means engaging the local community through clean-up events at local streams and providing education to help businesses and residents understand the impact of their landscaping, snow removal and storm water management practices. “Everything that impacts the land impacts the water,” explains Brittany Musolino, the River-Friendly coordinator. “Everyone loves a beautifully manicured lawn, but a beautifully manicured wildflower garden is more river friendly.”
Stony Brook Millstone Watershed Association is one of many organizations worldwide that has received support from RBC’s 10-year Blue Water Project, which began in 2007 and has provided over $50 million in grants. The goal of the program from the very beginning was to promote healthy watersheds and make a difference in the community, not just today but for future generations. In addition to grants to more than 100 U.S. partner organizations, RBC employees have also rolled up their sleeves to help protect local water through annual Blue Water clean-up events across the country.
Financial advisor Craig Shaver has participated in every Blue Water clean-up project in Minneapolis, Minnesota since RBC began hosting events in 2009. “This is one of my great passions in life,” explains Shaver. “I’ve been active in water issues and environmental conservation since high school. The RBC Blue Water Project is just a natural extension of that passion.”
For Shaver, protecting water isn’t just a one-day-per-year activity, it’s a lifestyle and his connection with the RBC Blue Water Project has helped provide more opportunities to make a difference for local water. From planting trees and native species along a stretch of highway on Earth Day with Great River Greening, a local Blue Water Project partner organization, to converting portions of his lawn to a chemical-free, low water garden, Shaver is putting the knowledge and experience he gained at Blue Water events to use.
“You can’t turn around without reading an article about how important water is, in our state, in our country and around the world,” says Shaver. “I would have never had these additional opportunities but for the Blue Water Project. I’m proud to be part of RBC’s commitment to improve water around the country.”
As the ten-year RBC Blue Water Project wraps up, the ripples of its impact will continue moving through communities for years to come. The Sonoran Institute, a first-time Blue Water Leadership Grant recipient in 2017, is the example of that effect Tucson, Arizona, where flooding from storm water runoff comes with increasing risk.
The Airport Wash neighborhood on Tucson’s south side has seen more frequent extreme weather flooding events, and prolonged heat events exacerbated by the urban heat island effect. Tucson's roadways were designed to quickly move water down streets and into local streams. As a result, there are very few green spaces to catch storm water and runoff entering streams is heavily polluted. With the Airport Wash Project, the Sonoran Institute will work with their partners, Watershed Management Group and the University of Arizona, to scale up green infrastructure throughout the neighborhood to help improve the harvesting and re-use of storm water and reduce the impacts of the urban heat island. John Shepard, Senior Director of Programs at the Sonoran institute explains, “In the Southwest, river beds are often dry due to the many demands on this limited resource. Our project’s goal is to retain water in a way that percolates into the ground, mimicking the natural water cycle, and create green areas that people see as an amenity in their neighborhood that also reduce surrounding temperatures.”
To accomplish their goals and inspire other communities to follow suit, the Sonoran Institute partners with local community groups and businesses to show “the art of the possible” when it comes to green infrastructure. It can be daunting for a group to implement changes, but the Sonoran Institute is ready to help and committed to community success. “It’s sweat equity. They have to learn how to do it, but we’ll help teach them how, provide a handbook and come in annually to provide follow-up assistance,” says Shepard. And when one project finds community support, more neighbors are inspired to take on their own project. “Our hope is that groups will complete their project and become an advocate for other neighborhoods to take on the same project,” explains Shepard. “The more we empower community success, the more we create a model for success in other communities.”
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