EE Week Guest Blogger Series: Do you know where the water in your town comes from?

This is the second post in our EE Week Guest Blogger Series. Read the previous entry, “Wondrous Wetlands,” by 4th grade teacher Tasha Kiemel of Sammamish, Washington, to learn more about how educators across the country are incorporating hands-on environmental field work into the curriculum.
Dave Wood teaches 8th grade Environmental Science at Sidwell Friends School in Washington, DC, and he serves on the National Environmental Education Week (EE Week) Teachers Advisory Committee. EE Week promotes understanding and protection of the natural world by actively engaging K-12th grade students and educators in an inspired week of environmental learning before Earth Day. This year’s EE Week celebration occurs April 12-18, 2009, and the theme is Be Water Wise! To learn more or get involved, visit

After teaching 8th grade environmental science at Sidwell Friends School in Washington, D.C. for over a decade, I came to realize that our students did not know some fundamental facts about the water upon which their lives depend.  For them, water just magically came out of the tap, and it had to be clean and healthy because, evidently, no one was getting sick from drinking it.  And, when my students dumped anything and everything down the drains or toilet, they assumed that, of course, the sewage treatment plant would take care of it all–because that’s why it was called a “treatment” plant.   Where their drinking water came from, how it was treated, and what happened to it after it was flushed down the drain; they couldn’t say.  And, I had to admit, neither could I.
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Dave taking his students out for some field research.

It became clear that the provision and disposal of water was an
invisible process in our urban environment.  It was also evident that,
if our students were going to understand the importance of keeping our
waterways clean and free of pollutants, they would have to see this
process revealed.  And so, we organized our 8th graders into teams. 
One team went to visit the water treatment plant.  Another went to see
the sewage treatment plant.  A third team traced the route taken by
storm water runoff exiting our campus. Each group of students took
pictures, prepared PowerPoint presentations, and reported their
findings to the entire school.
What did our students learn?  They found that Washington, D.C. drinking
water comes from the Potomac River, which picks up every conceivable
substance as it flows by farmlands, sanitary landfills, factories, and
towns large and small that drain into the watershed.  They saw how our
water treatment plant, Dalecarlia, which is operated by the U.S. Army
Corps of Engineers, takes care of such contaminants as sediment,
nitrogen and phosphorus, and micro-organisms.  And they also realized
that perhaps hundreds (if not thousands) of compounds such as factory
waste, pharmaceuticals, and caffeine are also present in the water–
many of them unknown and unidentified.  Can we say for sure that the
water treatment plant is removing all of these?  If not, do we know
that long-term exposure poses no health risks? It is disconcerting to
note, for example, that traces of birth control medications are being
found in the Potomac River
, while alarming numbers of male bass in the
river are carrying eggs. Is it, therefore, a good idea to do our best
to keep these chemicals out of our water supply?

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Our students also discovered that our sewage treatment plant, Blue
, is a state-of-the art facility that provides tertiary treatment
of the city’s waste before dumping it back into the Potomac (unlike
most of the treatment plants upstream, which provide only primary and
secondary treatment). They saw that the facility is designed to treat
organic waste, but not hazardous substances, such as might be dumped
down the drain in my science lab.  Is it important, then, to keep these
chemicals from arriving at the sewage treatment plant?

Additionally, students traced the path our runoff takes as it flows
into Rock Creek and, ultimately, the Potomac River.  They saw trash,
oil, anti-freeze, salt, and dog droppings along the road en route to
the creek.  They came to realize that most of these substances receive
no treatment at all, and that this is going on everywhere upstream–and
ending up in our drinking water supply.  Is it smart, therefore, to
reduce runoff when we can?

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In the end, the story of our water ceased being invisible, and the
reasons why we must keep our water clean became clear.   We wish every
citizen could have the same experience in his or her own community
Many thanks to Dave for sharing his story. There’s more guest blogger goodness to come during EE Week–next week. So stay tuned!

5 thoughts on “EE Week Guest Blogger Series: Do you know where the water in your town comes from?

  1. I admire the valuable information you offer in your articles.
    I will bookmark your blog and have my children check up here often.
    I am quite sure they will learn lots of new stuff here than anybody else

  2. This Is very nice. helping out our envirment can make a difference in many peoples lives’

  3. I know where the water from my place is coming from 🙂
    This a great exposure for our teenagers about the source of water they drink and teach them how valuable it really is.

  4. The Quabbin Reservoir is the largest body of water in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and was built between 1930 and 1939. Today along with the Wachusett Reservoir, it is the primary water supply for Boston, some 65 miles to the east, as well as 40 other communities in Greater Boston and the MetroWest area.
    There is a very interesting history around the development of the Quabbin Reservoir and the impact it had on several towns which were displaced during its creation.

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