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How New Jersey is empowering students to become “River-Friendly”
Water

How New Jersey is empowering students to become “River-Friendly”

New Jersey’s River-Friendly School program teaches kids about our most valuable resource – water.

In Readington Township, New Jersey, two elementary schools met for the first time in 2016 to celebrate water.

students exploring river-friendly school program raritan headwaters

The River-Friendly School program, an offshoot of the River-Friendly certification program that works to eliminate pollution through teacher and student education and certifications, had hosted a river festival to celebrate clean water and conservation. The students got a chance to bond while realizing they’ve been connected all along through their water.

“The idea of a watershed is that we all share this one resource,” says Lauren Theis, director of education of Raritan Headwaters, “and someone downstream is directly affected by your actions.”

The festival incorporated the metaphor, challenging the children to think about where their water comes from and where it goes: a question that most adults can’t answer. The program is trying to change that reality by equipping school-aged children with the knowledge to be water stewards.

river friendly school programs

“Someone downstream is directly affected by your actions.”

Lauren Theis, director of education, Raritan Headwaters

The collaborative certification program consists of a partnership between three organizations, the Watershed Institute, New Jersey Water Supply Authority (NJWSA), and Raritan Headwaters, a watershed conservation group. All three work together to implement the program, working with individual institutions and schools on projects like water quality management, conservation, and habitat protection.

Becoming certified “River-Friendly” is free. Beyond schools, the program extends to golf courses, farms, businesses, and residents, says Theis.

The thrust of the certification part of the program is an assessment of current water quality, followed by action items for improvement.

raritan headwaters school friendly program
River-Friendly certified schools (Lauren Theis, right)

“The baseline idea is that the water is never stagnant on these properties. It comes through, and then leaves- and we want to create a system where it’s leaving with the same or better quality,” says Theis.

Improving water quality can take several forms. Impervious surfaces like sidewalks, compacted grass, and rooftops can cause environmental problems. During rain events, water can easily carry the pollutants like litter, road salt, pesticides, and animal droppings into storm drains and local waterways.

“We want to intersect and slow down that water,” says Theis.

Green stormwater infrastructure (GSI) solutions include rain barrels, rain gardens, planting native plants, and pollinator habitats, increasing no-mow areas that pull water down through the soil and aerate it.

The school emphasis of the program involves similar changes to green space, along with education and creation of new teaching opportunities.

“Some schools don’t have the property, so we make sure they can participate by turning it into a lesson- what it means to save water or use less water,” she says.

raritan headwaters river-friendly school program

Changing with the tides of a pandemic

We’re all connected through water.”

Lauren Theis

Much of the program’s work has been put on hold due to COVID-19. Like many environmental organizations, the program has had to adapt because the water isn’t going anywhere.

“Stream cleanups and native plantings are events that could be done with proper social distancing measures and extra precautions,” says Theis.

If schools are opting for virtual learning in the fall, the program will offer virtual classroom visits. They are currently working on coming up with creative ways to make virtual presentations interactive.

They have also been working with Project WET, a training program that equips teachers to educate students about water, to ensure that water education is continuing even through a pandemic.

“With these programs, there’s something for everybody. We are a resource to the community, and I hope the people will utilize what we have to offer -because we’re all connected through water,” says Theis.

raritan headwaters students river-friendly school program nj

Photos courtesy of Lauren Theis, Raritan Headwaters

This story was produced in partnership with CivicStory, and funded by a grant from Spring Point Partners LLC.    


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Claire Marie Porter
Claire is a freelance journalist and graduate of Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, where she focused on health and science journalism. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, Grist, WIRED, and Grid Magazine. When she's not writing, she's turning over logs in the woods or reading Harry Potter with her kindergartner. View all posts by Claire Marie Porter

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