Here, in South Jersey, over a million residents and visitors get their drinking water from the Kirkwood-Cohansey Aquifer, who use about 35 BILLION gallons of water from it each year! The Kirkwood-Cohansey is a superficial aquifer, meaning that it is exposed to the surface at low points such as wetlands, rivers, streams, and lakes. Because of that, even small changes in the water table, caused by excessive pumping out of water, can cause significant impacts on these water bodies, especially the freshwater wetlands and small streams of the Pinelands. This can lead to negative impacts on the delicate balance of these ecosystems and the plants and animals that live there. These rivers also flow out into our bays where they have a major impact on the fish and shellfish who rely on these areas, which have a lower salt content than the open ocean because of the freshwater flowing into them. In addition, the Maurice River, an officially designated “wild and scenic” river enjoyed by thousands of people for recreation every year, relies on the Kirkwood-Cohansey for most of its base flow. These issues are only getting worse as the region becomes more densely populated and as we see more dry weather spells. Most of New Jersey is now in a drought, and although South Jersey is currently better off than North Jersey there is a chance that this will not last as we get into the heat of the summer months.
The American Littoral Society is piloting several education initiatives this year to encourage local schools and residents to save water, so that we can both continue to have clean drinking water and protect our local ecosystems. As part of the Kirkwood-Cohansey Aquifer Initiative, through a grant from the William Penn Foundation, we started with Vineland High School, Cumberland Regional High School, and Bridgeton High School. Vineland and Bridgeton are two of the three major urban centers of Cumberland County, with Cumberland Regional serving many of the rural communities.
After giving the students a base of knowledge about where their water supply comes from (the Kirkwood-Cohansey Aquifer!) and the challenges our region would face if we use too much of it, the students made models of groundwater using soda bottles, sand, gravel, and clay. They then got to see water percolating down into the “aquifer,” including the difficulty it had in passing through certain mediums over others. And who doesn’t like to play in the dirt for school? Afterwards, I was the worst guest speaker in the world because I gave them homework! They had to perform a water audit at home to figure out how much water they use daily by tracking how often and for how long they took a shower, flushed the toilet, ran the sink, did the dishes, etc.
It is also important to connect our above ground uses of water to how it effects the aquifers, beyond just our direct use of water to drink, clean, and grow food. Changes in the landscape that come with development and urbanization have unintended consequences on what happens underground as well. Roads, parking lots, buildings, and other man-made structures are impervious surfaces that don’t allow rain water to percolate into the ground and recharge the aquifer. Instead, we get stormwater runoff that picks up all kinds of pollutants, drains down into our storm drains and out into local streams and often ultimately the ocean. In a natural environment, more than half of rain water ends up recharging the aquifer and only about a tenth becomes stormwater runoff. In a highly urbanized environment, these statistics are almost reversed. Combine that with the fact that urban centers tend to use more water simply because they house more people, and you have a recipe for significant stress on aquifer supplies! We tried to display this principle with the students by doing an activity that simulated stormwater runoff and “green infrastructure” using sponges. The sponges in the activity represented rain barrels, rain gardens, cisterns, riparian buffers, and other green infrastructure projects that limit stormwater runoff and encourage groundwater recharge. The negative effects of impervious surfaces can be alleviated with smartly placed green infrastructure, which soak up excess stormwater before it reaches storm drains. The students at Cumberland Regional High School also walked around the school to come up with ideas for where we could place green infrastructure projects, like rain gardens, rain barrels, tree plantings, etc. The weather was beautiful for the first class but the second got caught in the rain a bit, although at least it was appropriate weather for the topic!
After learning about aquifers and stormwater management, and tracking their water use at home, the students then performed a water audit at their school and will use this data to estimate how much water the school currently uses and how much they could save by switching to more efficient products. Vineland High School estimated that the school bathrooms use 19,862 gallons of water per day! That’s almost an Olympic sized swimming pool every month, just from the bathrooms! And by switching their old fixtures to WaterSense-certified products they could save 12,624 gallons per day!
The cheapest and easiest fix for this problem is simply to cut water waste and use the water we do need more efficiently, which is why we focused on water-wise behaviors and had the students track their own water use at home, to estimate how much they use on an average day. Simple changes can really add up, like for every minute you take off of your showers you save 2.5 gallons of water, fixing leaky toilets can save 30-50 gallons per day per toilet, and not running the faucet while you brush your teeth can add up to 2,400 gallons of savings per year! One of the girls in the class wants to be an environmental journalist, so we are planning on using this interest of hers to spread the word to the rest of the students at the school, perhaps through a video on the morning announcements.
After the students perform a water audit for the school, they will use this data to come up with a proposal for one thing that the school could change that would have a significant impact on water use, such as retrofitting a particularly high-use bathroom or changing the sprinkler system for the football field. Part of the Water Champions grant will then be used to put their proposal into action! Then some of the students will do outreach into the community to local businesses that are interested in receiving a water audit and recommendations for retrofits of their own. This program should be a great way for the next generation to both learn about the importance of being good stewards of our water, and put that knowledge into action in their communities!