For the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management, improving water quality in the Woonasquatucket watershed is an ongoing priority. For the Connors family of Johnston, it’s a nice way to spend a Saturday.
Joseph and Natasha Connors and their son David are volunteers with Save the Bay, and recently went out to mark storm drain catch basins. The tags used to mark drains serve as a reminder to residents that the chemicals or debris they dump in or around basins will find their way to the Woonasquatucket River.
“It’s a chronic problem across Narragansett Bay communities,” said Topher Hamblett, director of advocacy for Save the Bay. “When storm drains are filled up by trash, yard waste or debris, they back up into the street and cause flooding.”
It’s a project that has been conducted sporadically since an initial grant award to Save the Bay in 2000.
“We’ve really kept it going, 12 years later,” said volunteer and internship manager Stephany Hessler. “When we have funding, we do the project.”
Since the floods of 2010, Hamblett says there is more awareness of local flooding, and homeowners are more concerned about how to keep drainage functioning properly.
“There are more frequent, high-intensity storms,” he said.
That isn’t what got the Connors involved, however. Joseph and Natasha started volunteering with Save the Bay about one year ago, signing up for beach cleanups in their area. Soon, it became a regular thing. They now volunteer at one or two events each month, and bring along David, who is just in the second grade.
“We usually do it together. We take the little one when we can and he has a good time,” Joseph said.
On their day volunteering with the project, the Connors tagged roughly 30 drains. They continue to sign up for other projects, including a beach cleanup in East Providence over last weekend.
“We try to teach him to take care of the beach,” Natasha said.
In order to mark a drain, volunteers must clear the area of brush and dirt. They then put adhesive glue on the tag and push it into the drain. These tags last about five years, and between April and October of this year, Save the Bay volunteers tagged 300 drains. In 2011, 1,400 drains were tagged.
Volunteers are trained at Save the Bay, and go out either independently or with volunteer leaders that oversee the projects. Drain tagging generally takes place only in the spring, summer and early fall, as it must be 50 degrees or warmer and have been dry for at least three consecutive days.
Save the Bay works with municipalities and their departments of public works to identify the catch basins that drain into the Woonasquatucket. Cities and towns are eager to get on board with the project, as it goes toward compliance regulations for stormwater management. Johnston is one of many communities that have participated in the drain marker program, and Hessler is confident that the efforts of volunteers like the Connors goes a long way in educating Rhode Islanders.
“It makes them think twice, ‘If I put this down here, this will go into our waterways,’” Hessler said. “I would say every area is in need of this project.”
The Connors have seen that firsthand. While marking drains in Johnston, neighbors and strangers approached them to find out what they were doing.
“We got a lot of that. They were curious what we were doing and who sent us,” Natasha said. “It makes them more aware of what they put outside their house.”
Hessler is happy to hear it. She says putting volunteers on the streets helps promote awareness of environmental issues, sparking dinner table conversations about what individuals and families can do to protect the state’s natural resources.
“This is a great family project and it’s a great project for students. It does start that awareness of volunteering and outreach at an early age,” she said.
Save the Bay Director of Communications Rose Amoros said that education and outreach are two priorities of the agency. Each year, Save the Bay reaches thousands of students.
“Last year alone, we had about 16,000 students who were engaged in the program,” she said.
Students and families like the Connors will continue to work with Save the Bay into the winter months. Volunteer opportunities are available year-round, ranging from seal monitoring to cleanups and habitat restoration. Last year, Save the Bay had a volunteer force of nearly 2,000 people, as young as 6 years old and as old as 95.
“There is something for everyone,” Hessler said.
For more information on Save the Bay, visit www.savebay.org or call 272-3540. To look into volunteer opportunities, contact Hessler at ext. 130 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.