Chloe Wang is River Programs Coordinator at Bartram’s Garden, where her role includes leading community science programming, teaching middle school boatbuilding, supporting public boating and fishing programs, contributing to professional development activities of the Alliance for Watershed Education, and working on projects with a host of other partners. Chloe joined the Bartram’s Garden staff in 2017 as a post-bac fellow of Haverford College, where she studied chemistry and environmental studies. In addition to her work at Bartram’s, Chloe has designed interdisciplinary, field-based environmental studies courses with Haverford faculty, exhibited artwork at the Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education, and researched Gulf of Mexico oil, deep sea microbe-mineral interactions, honeybee health, and plastics in the Delaware River watershed.
What is your current role at Bartram’s Garden?
I am part of the River Programs team at Bartram’s Garden, which encompasses many things. It’s centered around our Community Boathouse, which opened in 2015 and runs programs from April through October. We have a really important riverfront with the only public dock on the tidal Schuylkill River. The river is public space, just like the land-based part of the park, but it is harder to access because you need a boat, transport and storage for the boat, somewhere to launch it, and the skills and physical ability to operate it. The Community Boathouse offers free public boating and fishing programs. Our largest program is free, walk-up kayaking and rowing on Saturdays. This program is supported by a crew of over 100 volunteers. The goal of these recreation programs is to facilitate access to this public waterway that our park is next to, to be as inclusive as possible, and to facilitate positive experiences with the river.
What kind of impact do these free river programs have on the community?
There’s a really clear demand for these programs! This past season, we had over 5,600 participants. 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. 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. Beyond that, negative perceptions of the river informed by its history present another barrier. This river has historically been very heavily polluted and even caught on fire. These programs are also important because they’re facilitating positive experiences with the water. Many of our participants are boating on the Schuylkill for the first time, or boating for the first time in general. After a half hour on the water, many guests who were initially nervous are enthusiastic and eager to return. The recreation programs are an introduction to a new vantage point for a lot of people living in Philadelphia who have never seen the city from the water. It’s a relationship-building tool as well.
Did the river science program come from this high demand for recreational opportunities?
It definitely came from our experience running these programs. We have a gift that the water is clean enough to boat on, which is a vast improvement from a few decades ago. These improvements largely came about during the Clean Water Act era. A lot of the historic industrial sources of pollution were shut down or now have heavier regulations. Water quality has improved dramatically, but we face 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, and may thus retain CSO pollution longer than a non-tidal river. This is a frequent reason that we cancel programming because we cancel our Saturday program within 24 hours of rainfall.
The issue of CSOs and our very limited understanding of weather and pollution patterns were the impetus for starting the river science and water quality monitoring program. Historically, there has been very little data collection on this part of the river by agencies or research institutions. The USGS and Philadelphia Water Department have sensor stations in place, but only above Fairmount Dam, which is the cutoff between the Upper Schuylkill and the Lower, tidal Schuylkill, so they’re not documenting the effects of CSOs. We decided that we should start collecting some of our own data, which seemed like a meaningful opportunity for community science as well. Our volunteers are interested in the river, and that is related to their involvement in our recreation programs. Caring about something is the best reason to start learning about it!
How did volunteers participate in collecting data and writing the letter to the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection?
This past season was our first full season of data collection by both volunteers and our high school interns. The volunteers were sampling weekly for E. coli, phosphate, and nitrate, and the interns would sample on additional days. Alice Baker (formerly of PennFuture) and Gayle Killam (formerly of River Network) offered training to me and Joanne, as well as some volunteers, 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. At the end of the season, we worked together to write the letter to Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection and the Delaware River Basin Commission, the entities that make standards for our segment of the river. Volunteers and interns helped prepare a data submission along with this letter. The letter cites the prevalence of recreational activity on the river through our programs as evidence of the need for protection of recreational uses, and makes a number of asks to these agencies to better assess and protect the Lower Schuylkill.
Now that the letter has been finalized and sent, what are the next steps for the river science program?
I feel like that letter was a really great accomplishment for this new program. We took that next step in applying our data in an advocacy project. I am looking forward to doing more of that, continuing to work with many of the same participants, seeing how we can follow up, and identifying other agencies to talk to. I am also looking forward to more opportunities to communicate to a wider audience. This has been a small group project and the learnings are mostly internal, but we want to work on making our data more publicly accessible, maybe through a web page or having a few volunteers present at a conference. This is what I am thinking about this coming season.
Beyond that, we would love to see ways for participation to expand. In the future, being able to offer more people compensation and expand who we invite to be a part of data collection and interpretation would be great. This is really an experiment in making knowledge production more democratic. As a person with a science background who works in a public-facing context, I am interested in how much we can learn and achieve as a group of non-experts collecting data together, and how we can draw on different kinds of expertise that each of us brings to this work.