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Meet the Youth Mobilizing to Make Your Water Cleaner

PRWC's Youth Conservation Corp team planting 350 plants in the rain garden.

Stormwater that flows directly into storm drains and into rivers seems pretty harmless, right? Think again. The number one known cause of pollution in rivers and streams is stormwater runoff, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Runoff carries excessive amounts of dirt, fertilizers, pesticides, household chemicals, phosphorous, nitrogen and bacteria—harmful to drinking water supplies, fish and wildlife habitats and recreational use of local rivers. Making matters worse is the steady decline of plants and shrubs growing along the riverfronts that would help filter incoming pollution. Locally, many communities that draw water from the 90-square mile Pomperaug River watershed (comprised of the Pomperaug, Nonnewaug, and Weekeepeemee rivers) are impacted by stormwater runoff pollution, including all or parts of Bethlehem, Woodbury, Southbury, Washington, Morris, Roxbury, Middlebury and Oxford. Carol Haskins, outreach director of the Pomperaug River Watershed Coalition (PWRC), explains, “Within the Pomperaug watershed, some historic data revealed levels of bacteria that exceeded the water quality standard for human contact. That means that people who contact that water risk becoming sick.” Nationally recognized for its cooperative efforts, the Woodbury-based Coalition is up to the task of monitoring, protecting and restoring the quality of the water bodies in the area. They’ve been building on scientific research about the watershed that began in 1898. And, with $30,000 in grant support from Connecticut Community Foundation over the last three years, PRWC has marshalled the energies of their Youth Conservation Corps to lend a hand in preventing water pollution. In six-week summer sessions, the crews of high school students recruited for the Corps―led by the Dr. Marc J. Taylor intern, a college student studying the environment― have tackled projects to prevent stormwater pollution and have learned how to create environmentally sound areas around rivers and streams. The Foundation’s grant pays for their time, and projects are coordinated with longstanding partners including Audubon Bent of the River, Flanders Nature Center, Roxbury and Southbury Land Trusts, and local towns. Just last summer, the Corps removed trash and debris from Shepaug and Pomperaug rivers, cleared an estimated 2.5 tons of invasive Japanese Knotweed in a floodplain forest from Audubon Bent of the River in Southbury, planted a 1000-square foot rain garden with 350 plants, hosted two rain barrel workshops, cleared a mile of trails at the Roxbury Land Trust and bagged invasive plants—filling 40 contractor bags!—along riverbanks (giving native trees and shrubs a better opportunity to thrive). “The rain gardens,” Haskins said, “capture isolated areas of water that would otherwise directly flow into a storm drain. It gives water a place to soak into the ground and get filtered out by the soil.” Similarly, she said, the new plantings along the rivers and streams help absorb and filter out the stormwater pollutants. As the youth interacted with the community in high-visibility places, they told people what they were doing and why. Building public awareness, according to Haskins, is key to widespread change. Haskins has led the Corps, modeled after a similar successful program in Maine, for three years. She reflected, “It’s continuing a legacy, bringing these high school kids in and really getting them engaged on the ground and getting them excited to steward the environment for future generations. It may seem like a drop in the bucket, but it’s every drop that really adds up and makes a difference.”

Mike Hunyadi, YCC Crew Leader/Dr. Marc Taylor Intern, installed interpretative signage with Jan Taylor's help.

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