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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Urban Water Lesson

Air Date: Week of

Some of us don't know where our drinking water comes from. That's especially true for city dwellers whose water often travels from hundreds of miles away. Many folks don't make the connection between the picture postcards of streams in the country, and the water that flows from their faucets. Richard Schiffman reports on an event in New York City designed to change that.


KNOY: Here in the U.S., we often take the state of our environment for granted. Like the availability of fresh drinking water, for example. Some of us don't even know where our water comes from. Especially city dwellers. Their water often travels from hundreds of miles away. And many don't make the connection between the pretty picture postcards of streams in the country, and the water that flows from their faucets. Richard Schiffman reports on an event in New York City designed to change that.

(Sounds of people talking)

SCHIFFMAN: Recently sixth graders in Harlem learned that fresh water is not just something that comes out of the tap.

SEAMAN: When it comes from the wetland, how does it get here, what's the next step?

BOY: It goes to the reservoir, and then it goes through the pipes, and when we open it, it falls down the drain and then it goes to the river and it flows off the ocean and then it evaporates and it all happens again and that's the water cycle.


SEAMAN: All right, good work.

SCHIFFMAN: This student is one of thousands from around the country taking part in the Clean Water Works Program. It's been designed jointly by the detergent manufacturer Lever Brothers and the Nature Conservancy, an environmental group, to teach elementary school students about threats to the nation's fresh water resources. The Conservancy's Dan Seaman is across the street from P.S. 175 to help kickoff the program. He says learning about the water cycle connects the children to the whole history of life on earth.

SEAMAN: The idea that the water we're drinking today is the same water that the dinosaurs were drinking thousands of years ago, it's a really neat thing for the kids to realize that, that this is the same water that keeps cycling around and that we're drinking the same water for thousands and thousands of years.

SCHIFFMAN: Dan Seaman is in charge of a refuge in the Great Swamp, one of the state's largest wetlands. Later this spring he'll be taking this class on a canoe tour of the swamp which feeds one of the city's reservoirs. But these children don't have to go all the way upstate to see a living wetland.

WOMAN: We're standing in what is the pond-marsh-meadow area of the Harlem Success Gardens which is located on 134th Street between Lenox and 7th.

SCHIFFMAN: Kathy Tonies is in charge of this unique urban wilderness where the class on water is taking place. The garden occupies ten vacant city lots which used to be a hand out for drug dealers, littered with abandoned refrigerators and cars. Volunteers, under the guidance of the local school district, converted it into a green oasis amidst the tenements. The jewel of this garden environmental center is a small pond studded with water lilies and fringed with cattails and reeds.

GIRL: Oh, yeah.

TONIES: Andrea, do you see something going like this?

KIDS: Yeah, there's something green that's moving, let me see. Looks like it's got legs.

SCHIFFMAN: The students are looking through microscopes at a squirming green hydra and other tiny organisms. At a nearby table there are larger pond animals: snapping turtles, frogs and crayfish.

TONIES: They stay at the bottom of the stream and wherever they are you know it's a really healthy stream, because they can't survive in a dirty one.

BOY: How come so many crayfish live under the rocks and stuff?

TONIES: Well they hide. First of all they're a predator, right? And if you're a predator, what's your best way to find food?

WILSON: Today represents an opportunity to learn about the need for clean water and also the source of New York City's drinking water.

SCHIFFMAN: Teacher Larry Wilson wants his students to continue their investigations of water after they return home.

WILSON: We have these home testing kits, and what the students are going to do over the break is they will actually test, with the help of their parents, the pipes where their drinking water is coming from at home and looking for any lead which may be leaching out of the pipes into their drinking water.

SCHIFFMAN: The results of their tests will be sent to the federal Environmental Protection Agency. Larry Wilson hopes that by informing children about their drinking water today, they'll be motivated to protect it in the future. And if a survey conducted as part of the Clean Water Works Program is accurate, many others agree. Ninety-eight percent of those polled said that we need to educate our children early about threats to the environment if we hope to save it. For Living on Earth, I'm Richard Schiffman.

SEAMAN: What do those animals and what do those plants, what do they need to survive? What's one of the things that they really need to survive? Yeah. Right. Water. And what about you, do you also need water?



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