Environmental educational centers along the Delaware River watershed are joining forces to raise awareness about the 13,500 square mile system.
Announced earlier this week, the 23 centers from Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware formed the Alliance for Watershed Education of the Delaware River.
Mike Flynn, vice president of interpretation and visitor experience at the Independence Seaport Museum in Philadelphia, said they want people to know the waterways are here and are usable.
“There is a lot of our public that just aren’t aware,” he said. “They don’t even know the basic premise of the rivers, that the Delaware is a watershed.”
He sees this a great opportunity to share how connected people are to the water.
“The water you drink, that comes out of the river. That makes it through a system that you have because someone is taking care of that water resource. And if we don’t all do that together that water’s not going to be safe for us to use or drink in the future.”
Flynn says one goal is to get people to view the waterways differently.
“If people would invest in their community and understand the river is an asset to them and not something that’s a barrier to cross them, they’ll inevitably start to think about it, take care of it,” he said. “People will be more invested. There’ll be more projects and community involvement. There will be more funding then to help preserve what’s already here.”
At the Independence Seaport Museum on the Delaware River in Philadelphia, Nahida Rahman points out some of her responsibilities as a summer fellow.
“We decorated the swans [boats] to attract people. Mr. President Swan with the hat and the Party Swan with the hula skirt those are the top two so far…We’ll have people paddle over to the wetlands and take a look at the different plants,” she said.
The joint initiative has created the Environmental Fellowship Program, where each center hosts a summer fellow to manage community outreach programs. The fellowship program is planned to be annual.
As part of the newly formed alliance, the centers have introduced a summer environmental fellow at each center.
The inaugural group, ages 18 to 24, includes Rahman who works on the docks.
“It’s exciting. It’s a thrill every single day. You get to meet so many different people and really connect with them, with the water and, you know, share your experience with them.”
The senior at Temple University is graduating at the end of the summer with a degree in public health. The fellowship is her first maritime environmental health position, and she’s hoping to stay in the environmental health field after graduation.
The summer fellows conduct public engagement with a focus on communities that are underserved or underrepresented.
“I get to be in the water and I feel like a lot of people don’t get that same opportunity and I just want to be able to share that with everybody,” the Montgomery County native said. “You have no idea how many people…come and they’re scared to get in the water. So we’re trying to prevent that. We’re trying to get people more connected to the Delaware.”
The 23-year-old likes teaching the public about water experiences they don’t usually have, like learning how to get in and out of boats.
“In Philadelphia, there’s not many, like, basins where you can actually go out and be on boats and experience that type of environment. We’re in an urban environment where you all see is cars and city and buildings and whatnot. So it’s something different.”
The regional alliance will collectively deliver programs to more than 180,000 visitors annually and hopes to foster a sense of ownership among the communities.
Flynn sees the fellowship program as another way to connect even more people to their local waterways.
“We’re really excited about that component because it directly reaches into the different communities and pulls out people that have an opportunity to get these great experiences around these different water centers and then become advocates and learn and be able to spread the word through their friends and families,” he said. “And suddenly more and more people are engaged with the water.”
The William Penn Foundation, a supporter of WHYY, invested $4.5 million to launch the watershed education program to help protect the waterways that provide clean drinking water for 15 million people.
The environmental education centers provide hands-on activities along local rivers and streams, like guided hikes, learning how to canoe and planting floating wetlands.
Last fall, the 23 centers hosted their first joint program, “River Days,” a month-long series of events that celebrated the rivers and streams along the Delaware River, which is planned again for this coming fall.
All 23 centers are physically connected by the Circuit Trails, the Greater Philadelphia region’s 750-mile multi-use trail network, trails that connect throughout the entire watershed.