Watching and Wading
How three New Jersey teens help protect their local water supply
By Carol Milano
"Think globally, act locally" is a slogan that Steve LeGrand, 17, and his sister Emily, 18, take to heart. They've acted locally for the past 10 years to monitor the cleanliness of the drinking water in their area of New Jersey. "So many people don't understand that dumping a gallon of gasoline down a storm drain has drastic effects on all the animals and life around any nearby stream," says Steve, who lives in Annandale, N.J. Water, the most important substance for human health (after oxygen), is the basis of the body's biological processes. It's especially needed for the digestive system because water transports nutrients. It also regulates heat in the body. In short, water keeps people alive.
Keeping drinking water sources clean, then, is clearly very important. However, contamination and pollution affect many public water supplies, potentially causing health problems. Each year, more than 3.5 million Americans contract waterborne diseases, reports the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Because so many cases go unreported, New Jersey's Department of Environmental Protection doesn't have exact figures of waterborne illnesses for the state but estimates that the diseases cost between $10 million and $70 million every year in medical costs and lost wages. Contaminated water may contain harmful microorganisms that can make anyone who drinks or comes into contact with it sick. For instance, one type of bacterium, Legionella, can cause a lung disease. The Cryptosporidium parasite causes gastrointestinal disease. Other waterborne illnesses include infectious hepatitis, dysentery, and cholera. The germs and pollutants that cause the health problems often enter the water supply through spills, industrial waste products, or even just rain. As a result, water must be protected as it flows through reservoirs toward treatment plants. Otherwise, at any point, dangerous chemicals or other toxins may invisibly contaminate water.
WATCHING THE RIVER
More than half of New Jerseyans get their drinking water from the Raritan River and its tributaries. Since 1985, rapid development has brought substantial pollution to the area, explains Don Einhorn, executive director of the South Branch Watershed Association (SBWA), a nonprofit group in Flemington, N.J., that monitors water quality: "People leave things on the ground, like fertilizer. When it rains, [these substances] go into the ground or a storm sewer but eventually flow into the nearest body of water. Small streams flow into bigger streams, then the Raritan, and we drink it." For 10 years, the LeGrand family including Steve, Emily, and their parents has worked with the SBWA. The family tests water quality in the Raritan and its streams. Volunteers for the SBWA handle two vital protective measures: monitoring "checking for pollutants) and cleaning up streams by removing potentially harmful objects. If long-term sampling reveals shifts in quality, the SBWA tries to deduce causes.
"We don't look for fish; we want the things that live under a rock."
"You can tell the health of the water by what can live in it," says Emily, a first-year student at Carleton College in Minnesota. "We don't look for fish; we want the things that live under a rock. If insects needing really clean, high-oxygen-content water are there, that means the water is clean. When you aren't seeing the more sensitive insects, the water may be polluted."
CLEANING UP A KEY RESOURCE
Chris Lunden, 17, of Frenchtown, N.J., is another SBWA volunteer. He has been clearing waterways since his Cub Scout days. Now a Boy Scout senior patrol leader, he brings several fellow Scouts to a major SBWA river cleanup each year. "We choose a spot where we know people dump things, and [we] clear it," he says. "It takes about four hours. We find tons of stuff -- tires, sinks, if you can name it, we've found it." Their efforts make a huge difference in the local environment; between 1990 and 2000, legions of volunteers like Chris and many other Boy Scouts helped SBWA remove 20 tons of garbage from local waterways. "If we don't keep waterways clean," says Chris, "it will affect us later in life. It's one of those things where, if you don't protect it, it won't be around."
TEENS MAKE A DIFFERENCE
"Our volunteer activities help people build a relationship between self, community, and natural resources," Einhorn says. "Young people are soaking up information, learning things, finding out. A third grader understands a little: "Hey, these bugs are really cool." Teens catch on: "I live here; we all live here; we need to be concerned." It spreads to their family, school, community almost a grassroots approach." When Steve is taking samples, some people are curious and ask him questions. "Raising [thel awareness level is very important," says Steve. "Once people are more educated, I don't think they'll consciously do things that hurt the ecosystem, which would hurt themselves as well as others."