Conserving water at home has been a pillar of environmental responsibility for a very long time, but how does that relate to coastal conservation?
Ask the students who participated in the American Littoral Society’s Water Champions program over the past few years. Administered through the Society’s Delaware Bayshore office in Millville, NJ, it involves students from several area schools who explore how their upstream actions could affect coastal waters and what the steps they can take to make their communities more water efficient.
Freshwater conservation may seem like an odd fit for an organization like the Littoral Society, which is focused on caring for the coast. But there are some key connections.
One of the connections involves ensuring sustainable sources of drinking water for humans.
In New Jersey towns along the Delaware Bay, one of the biggest threats to the drinking water supply is saltwater intrusion into aquifers – the underground pools of fresh water that are frequently tapped by wells. If more water is taken out than is recharged by the rain, saltwater from the ocean moves to fill the void.
The Kirkwood-Cohansey aquifer is the underground reservoir beneath much of southern New Jersey – stretching from Ocean County in the north to the border of Cape May County in the south. It is a shallow, unconfined or “water table” aquifer, meaning that the water in the ground is just below the land’s surface in most areas.
Demands on such aquifers are increased by coastal development, which brings more houses, roads and driveways that serve to reduce the area of permeable surface that allows aquifers to recharge when it rains.
The threat to the Kirkwood-Cohansey is not something that will happen in the distant future. Cape May had to build the east coast’s first desalination plant in the mid-1990s due to saltwater contamination of area wells. Rising sea levels, which are expected to rise by more than two feet by 2050, are adding further pressure on the aquifer.
Desalinization plants are very expensive and energy intensive. Experts agree that decreasing how much people use is a better solution than increasing supply from such sources.
.The other piece of the puzzle is that to maintain a healthy Delaware Bay, we need to pay attention to the freshwater flowing into it from the Delaware River and its tributaries (such as the Cohansey and Maurice rivers). This is both about water quality – making sure that the water is clean and unpolluted – and about quantity (estuaries rely on adequate freshwater flows to maintain the balance of salt and fresh water that the creatures that live there have evolved to expect).
A key issue is the intersection between surface water and groundwater. In southern New Jersey our rivers, streams, lakes, and freshwater wetlands are all at low points in the land that dip below the water table (which is where the Kirkwood-Cohansey Aquifer starts), So they are fed by the same groundwater that feeds the aquifer.
If the water in the aquifer dries up, those surface water bodies also start to dry up.
One way the Littoral Society works to help with this issue is through our green stormwater infrastructure program, which encourages rainwater to flow into the aquifer rather than running off impervious surfaces and racing straight into our rivers and streams and down to the bay.
While stormwater infrastructure is a big word, it simply means anything built to help rainwater percolate into the soil, where pollutants can be filtered out while also feeding our aquifers and waterways. Such infrastructure can involve major flood-control reservoirs AND home rain gardens.
However, the conservation component is where the Water Champions program enters the picture.
Funded by a grant from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency which came through the NJ Department of Environmental Protection, the program focuses on teaching students to measure water usage at their own homes, schools, and at local businesses.
These water audits are then used to direct funding for upgrades to water fixtures that are likely to yield the biggest water savings.
The first area school to get involved in the program was Ocean City High School District, in Ocean City, NJ. Two cohorts of Water Champions were trained to conduct audits, which they completed at both the high school and the local intermediate school.
The students then presented their findings to the school board, in front of an unexpectedly large audience (thanks to the meeting coinciding with end of school year awards for sports).
While it was intimidating, it also presented the students with an opportunity to give impromptu lessons on water conservation to many district residents.
Based on the findings of the audits, the greatest savings would come from upgrading the two most-used restrooms at the intermediate school due to their older and less water-efficient fixtures. It was estimated that the school would save nearly 220,000 gallons of water per year!
Students also conducted audits at the Positively Fourth Street, a popular local café, and the Flanders, where they typically held their prom. Upgrading a restroom at the café and a set of restrooms at the Flanders saved an estimated 1,950 and 28,600 gallons per year, respectively.
In subsequent years, the program grew to include Lower Cape May Regional High School and Wildwood High School. Lower Cape decided that since the district was upgrading one set of restrooms, it made sense for them to upgrade all the remaining restrooms at the same time. All together, these upgrades helped the school save about 3 million gallons of water per year!
The last two schools to join the program came from Cumberland County: Anthony Rossi School in Vineland and Indian Avenue School in Bridgeton. That also involved shifting the educational focus away from saltwater intrusion and towards the impact of aquifer withdrawal on the streams feeding into the Delaware Bay.
Plans were for the new programs to launch in spring of 2020. Thanks to Covid, that did not go as planned.
After revamping the program to be mostly virtual, we were finally able to begin in the spring of 2021 with students from the Rossi School “Power Saver” club and with three science classes at Indian Avenue School.
In some ways this actually made the home audit easier, though we were only able to bring teachers to the local businesses and have them take the collected data back to the classroom for analysis. It also left only one day for the in-school audit. We couldn’t have done it without the teachers that worked with us during this uncertain time – THANK YOU!!!
We are currently wrapping up the program and working on getting upgraded fixtures installed in the schools and at Larry’s II Restaurant in Vineland. We are very proud of all of our Water Champions and the great work they did with connecting water conservation and caring for the coast!