A Letter from Bartram’s Garden to the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection
In the days of the Clean Water Act, the Lower Schuylkill River was a hub of industry and development. Many point sources of pollution have since been shut down or heavily regulated, but the image of a polluted and inhospitable river are still pervasive throughout Philadelphia. Bartram’s Garden, a 45-acre National Historic Landmark, is challenging these negative perceptions by engaging thousands of visitors per season in free recreation and river science programs.
River programs at Bartram’s Garden are centered around the Community Boathouse, which opened in 2015. April through October, the Garden offers Saturday free boating, last Wednesday free fishing, moon row-boating and more. “The Boathouse first came about because our River Programs Manager, Danielle Redden, partnered with the Garden for a community River Fest that offered free boat rides,” says Chloe Wang, River Programs Coordinator at Bartram’s Garden. “Hundreds of people lined up, and many were from the local neighborhood. There was clear demand when the opportunity was offered, which highlighted the need to address barriers to physical access.” The program’s success has been indisputable, demonstrated by thousands of participants and hundreds of volunteers willing to donate their time for the sake of public access.
While conditions and water quality of the Lower Schuylkill have improved dramatically in the last few decades, there is one persistent source of pollution: combined sewer overflows (CSOs). “We have 40 combined sewer outfalls on our section of the river, which is tidal so it flows both ways,” says Chloe. “This is a frequent reason that we cancel programming because we cancel our Saturday program within 24 hours of rainfall.” There is currently very little agency- or research institution-led monitoring of the Lower Schuylkill River, where Bartram’s Garden runs one of the few public docks. To address the lack of monitoring and consequent lack of action by agencies to address the persistent CSOs, Bartram’s Garden decided to start collecting their own data with volunteers and high school students whose love for the river had grown through their involvement in existing education and recreation programs.
Joanne Douglas has been working with Bartram’s Garden since 2017. As the Watershed Interpretation & Youth River Programs Manager, Joanne works to create inclusive student programs that often serve as participants’ first introduction to conservation and environmental justice as a career path. “Many of the students we work with live along the river in Philadelphia and are from communities that will be impacted by climate change immediately,” says Joanne. “They are also, of course, younger and not able to vote or get as engaged politically in ways that adults can.”
In August of 2019, Joanne and Chloe engaged Alice Baker (formerly of PennFuture) and Gayle Killam (formerly of River Network) to consult on a letter to the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection and the Delaware River Basin Commission. This launched a multi-step collaboration among staff, students, and volunteers to secure greater protections for the beloved Lower Schuylkill River. “Alice and Gayle offered training to me and Joanne to help us understand the landscape of water policy for our specific context, which was really illuminating and changed the way that I understand the river and the structures that govern it,” says Chloe. Joanne agrees, stating that “the collaboration was so important because [Gayle and Alice] know policy and what agencies to go to in order to make change, which would have taken hours to figure out on our own.”
Chloe managed the volunteer writing and data collection process, while Joanne worked with the students over multiple workshops to write their portion of the letter. “The students chose to do the introduction and talk about the youth program and make the asks,” explains Joanne. “It was a funny time! One student suggested that we start the letter with a compliment because that’s what he does when he asks his dad for money.” Joanne led these student workshops with openness, listened to students’ ideas and guided the writing process toward the final version. The synthesized letter compels the reader to protect the Lower, tidal, Schuylkill on behalf of the students, volunteers, and program participants who now have access to recreational activities on the river.
“Our boating program is a free community activity on Saturdays where anyone can come and spend the day on the river. We prioritize being inclusive of all, regardless of age, experience, or ability. Our River Crew of young adults practice rowing boats and teach young kids, adults and families to row. Because we serve such a wide range of participants, from very young children to older adults whose immune systems may be weaker, the risk of health impacts from impaired water quality is of primary concern.”
River Network is thrilled at the outcome of this partnership with Bartram’s Garden and PennFuture. Through this letter-writing process, the staff at Bartram’s Garden effectively trained and empowered students and volunteers to demand greater protections from their local agencies. When asked about goals and next steps for this novel student- and volunteer-driven advocacy project, both Joanne and Chloe expressed great pride in seeing participants take an active role in protecting their local watershed. In the future, Joanne would like to see “returning students who eventually go off on their own and [continue to] engage civically.” Chloe describes this project as “an experiment in making knowledge production more democratic.” Like Joanne and Chloe, we are excited to watch this program expand as it continues to provide river access to Philadelphians and empower communities to expect more from their governing agencies.