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Befriending Urban Waters

By Jon Reidel Article published December 1, 2004

Jurij Homziak
From classroom demonstrations to creekbed restorations, Extension watershed expert Jurij Homziak is working to protect Vermont's urban waters. (Photo courtesy of Jurij Homziak)

In Vermont, rural streams and rivers have lots of friends. There are the Friends of the Mad River, Friends of the Winooski River, Friends of the Ompompanoosuc River and many, many more.

But what about the polluted urban waters of Chittenden County? Don’t they need boosters?

Jurij Homziak, Extension assistant professor, and his colleagues are hoping to change the lonely plight of these damaged watersheds by spearheading a number of low-cost, community-based efforts to promote a sense of responsibility among community members to protect water quality.

“They’re orphan streams,” says Homziak, executive director of the Lake Champlain Sea Grant program and coastal and watersheds specialist. “Nobody looks at them. Most people driving down Shelburne Road don’t even know they exist.”

The Community-Based Watershed Stewardship and Education project for urban streams was designed to include and educate various key players in communities affected by damaged watersheds. A community-driven model was created based on the restoration plan of the Englesby Brook watershed in Burlington.

“We get the schools, the city, neighborhood associations, businesses and institutional owners involved,” says Homziak. “They’re all partners in this and should participate in the planning of the restoration process, and in the action needed to improve water quality. It’s their brook and their neighborhood. All of these components are part of a comprehensive neighborhood, urban stream education and stewardship effort.”

Watershed education
Engaging students from local schools to help carry out the restoration project has been crucial to the effort. “Every stream and water body in Chittenden County is impaired, yet when you look at the curriculum in the schools there is no continuing educational program that focuses on watersheds, water quality and the urban environment,” Homziak says.

Through the use of an EPA Healthy Communities grant, secured by the UVM Watershed Alliance, a partnership of Extension, Lake Champlain Sea Grant, and the Rubenstein School of the Environment and Natural Resources, Homziak has been able to introduce water-related examples into the curriculum of local schools.

Don Fox at Edmunds Middle School, for example, incorporated four water-specific modules into his science curriculum. Homziak and colleagues helped develop the watershed-related material, which includes a field trip to Englesby Brook, to fit into the teacher’s existing curriculum. At the brook, students saw classroom lessons acted out on the landscape: how water shapes the land, how materials can be suspended in liquid and more. They also witnessed how human activities change the way that water works in the landscape.

“They’re getting a visual grasp of what their neighborhood looks like — the urban areas, the developed spots, the industrial areas, the vacant lots, the residential areas — and then we can talk to them about the likely sources of pollutants and how to control the runoff. It’s all part of this comprehensive neighborhood-based stewardship and education program that we’re really trying to engage the kids in,” Homziak says.

Students at Champlain Elementary School in Burlington’s South End created a watershed map by taking photographs of intersections that cross a watershed boundary. They presented the map and a slide show at a public presentation to show members of the community where watershed boundaries are located and the effects of various impacts like new construction and animal waste.

“People accept the fact that if you educate children about water quality and watershed education not only do you make them better environmentally literate citizens, they in turn transmit some of the information at home. It would make the value of watershed education that much more powerful.”

Addressing issues
Rural communities can adopt the community-based urban stream model to their specific needs. Extension became involved in water improvement projects in Colchester, St. Albans and Burlington after conducting needs assessment surveys of residents to identify potential areas of pollution, likely sources and ways that residents eliminate them.

“This way the scarce resources available for education are not squandered by doing a blanket education program that tries to hit everything,” says Homziak. “Once we determine the area of focus in a community through surveys, we give them to the town and watershed associations, who put their resources together to apply these education programs.”

Ideally each community would eventually be able to sustain the model itself. With that goal in mind, Homziak worked with a teacher at Bellows Free Academy to train a class of science students to administer the assessment survey. Extension is promoting other self-sustaining water-related programs through programs like Lake Education and Action, a coordinated effort of UMaine Cooperative Extension, UNH Extension and UVM/Lake Champlain Sea Grant to share lake education programs across state lines. LEAP facilitates the transfer of program information between the states. The idea is for Extension to serve as an expert catalyst to launch ongoing efforts from a variety of partners.

“We don’t have the resources to sustain [some programs], but if we train students to do the surveys and provide them guidance on how to sample water and provide support in analyzing the data, it can work," Homziak says. "[This is] Extension’s way of leveraging the unique skills we have to get the community involved and stay involved in the long term. The result will be improved water quality.”