Schuylkill Center in Roxborough joins alliance to improve riverways

Devon Mahallati, a junior at Philadelphia University majoring in sustainability, is welcomed to the Schuylkill Center staff by Elisabeth Zafiris, left, and Aaliyah Green Ross, leaders of the center’s educational programming. Mahallati is among the 23 Watershed Fellows, each joining one of the AWE centers’ staff, and will be helping the Schuylkill Center understand what users of the Schuylkill River Trail in Roxborough wish to learn about rivers and water systems.

ROXBOROUGH >> During a press conference at Fairmount Water Works, 23 environmental education centers from Pennsylvania, Delaware and New Jersey, including Roxborough’s Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education, announced a joint initiative to increase awareness of the importance of the Delaware River watershed, a 13,500-square mile system that provides drinking water for 15 million people.

This newly formed group, Alliance for Watershed Education of the Delaware River, will offer the public opportunities to explore, enjoy and engage in activities on their local waterways with the ultimate goal of advancing protection of this critical resource. Collectively, the centers offer opportunities for more than 180,000 visitors annually to enjoy nature and learn about the environment through hands-on activities along their local rivers and streams. Through shared expertise and resources, the alliance will reach new audiences and amplify the work already underway at the centers.

“The hundreds of small waterways that combine to form the Delaware River watershed connect amazing communities and majestic natural resources from Southern New York to Delaware Bay. People care about the stream that they’ve grown up next to,” said Collin O’Mara, president and CEO of National Wildlife Federation. “That’s why the National Wildlife Federation and hundreds of conservation partners across the region are joining forces to launch this alliance to help a diverse range of local voices speak up and be heard in their support for clean water. With federal funding for natural resources threatened and key regulations keeping our water clean at risk of being dismantled, we must rally our communities to form a strong base of clean water advocates, creating change from the bottom up. Together, we can more effectively generate a sense of ownership among communities for their local and regional wildlife and water.”

The 23 centers that form the alliance are all physically connected by the Circuit Trails, the Greater Philadelphia region’s 750-mile multi-use trail network, and trails that connect throughout the entire watershed. Using their centers and nearby trails as assets, the alliance will create and collectively deliver fun, engaging programs to this untapped audience of thousands of visitors on the Delaware River and its tributaries.

“We’re excited about the potential for the Alliance for Watershed Education to enable each of these 23 environmental centers to even more effectively reach the thousands of people who already participate in their excellent local programs,” said Andrew Johnson, watershed protection program director for the William Penn Foundation. “In addition, because of their location on the Circuit Trails, these centers also have an opportunity to engage thousands of people who use the trails along many of our rivers and streams in programming, building a new constituency for protection of clean water among these outdoor enthusiasts.”

“The Schuylkill Center is thrilled to be among the 23 centers in the AWE network,” said SCEE Executive Director Mike Weilbacher. “This summer, our staff will be engaging users of the Schuylkill River Trail in Roxborough to understand what they’d like to learn about riverways and water, and this fall, we’re offering a special paddle on the Schuylkill in Manayunk, focusing on its human and natural history. We’re also working with the 23 centers on a series of environmental art installations along the Circuit Trails. Stay tuned!”

A major investment of more than $4.6 million from the William Penn Foundation helped to launch this nationally significant model. The new initiative will enable the centers to develop shared programming targeted at people of diverse ages and backgrounds with a common interest in exploring and enjoying the waterways within the Delaware River watershed. The network’s early momentum has already secured funding from a new source, with the hope that it will continue to attract other funding; the alliance recently received a grant from the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection to expand existing watershed education curriculum developed by the Fairmount Water Works for middle schoolers in Philadelphia to different parts of the watershed, including Reading and Allentown, Pa.

Programs underway engaging thousands of people

The 23 environmental centers hosted their initial joint program, a series of “River Days” events, in the fall of 2016 to celebrate the unique rivers and streams within the Delaware River watershed. More than 10,000 people were engaged in the month-long series of events. River Days will kick off its second year in September 2017.

For its second major collaborative effort, the alliance has introduced an Environmental Fellowship Program in which each center will host a summer fellow between the ages of 18 and 24 to manage community outreach and programs. The fellows will focus on communities that are underserved or underrepresented, providing them with opportunities to enjoy and care for their local river or stream.

“The Environmental Fellowship Program is a promising way to engage young adults, many without any previous environmental training or education, in conservation efforts,” said Karen Young, executive director, Fairmount Water Works. “To ensure clean water for the future, it’s important for conservationists to mobilize the next generation. The summer fellowship program leverages the potential for these young people to become ambassadors for clean water and learn how they can involve local communities in contributing to the health of the watershed.”

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