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Yesterday, I had the great privilege to spend the morning with my sister’s 4th grade class at Oakbrook Elementary School in Ladson. One might suspect that as an organization dedicated to protecting the Charleston Harbor watershed, Charleston Waterkeeper’s efforts are limited to areas adjacent to the actual harbor. However, as we all know, our watershed is influenced by much of what happens upstream. For this reason, the students at Oakbrook Elementary School can be considered, in fact, the first line of defense when it comes to protecting the health of Charleston Harbor.

I spent the early part of the day talking about the connection between their school and the location of Charleston Waterkeeper’s office downtown. Considering they only had three days left of school, I was quite appreciative of Google’s interactive maps to help keep them entertained. To put into perspective the geographic relationship between them and the harbor, I showed the map below:

You’ll notice two red dots on the map above: the upper-left dot represents the location of Oakbrook Elementary School and the lower-right dot is the location of Charleston Waterkeeper’s office. We zoomed in and showed the path that water takes to get from their school to the open vastness of the Atlantic Ocean. The beginning stretches of the Ashley River, located just a stone’s throw from the school, winds “like a snake” and eventually flows into Charleston Harbor.

I discussed the concept of stormwater runoff. I mentioned that our actions on land have the potential to impact our favorite fishing spots, our favorite beaches, and the backdrop to an afternoon stroll on the Battery. Between fluids dripping from our vehicles, to pet waste, to cigarette butts, to trash, many of the pollutants that find themselves on the land around the students’ school can quite easily find their way into Charleston Harbor the next time it rains.

The students were incredibly excited about sharing all of the ways they would play a part in protecting our right to clean water. Many spoke of picking up trash they see near storm drains, while others promised to encourage their parents to recycle or properly dispose of trash and other forms of litter. I asked that each student draw two pictures: one picture of what our waterways will look like if they take action to protect them and the other picture was the same scene, but as if no one does anything to keep clean our waterways. The images were incredibly talented and quite inspiring!

Many students drew images of them taking an active role in educating others about not polluting. Here, a student prevents litter from being tossed into our waterways by declaring, "STOP!" The polluter in response admits his guilt, "Busted!"

On one side, this drawing shows a seagull trying to eat cigarette butts while standing in gasoline that will soon be washed into the nearby stormdrain during the next rainstorm; on the other, the same bird enjoys a pristine environment thanks to those taking efforts to stop pollution.

As we have explained in the past, there is no silver bullet when it comes to protecting our waterways; instead, there are many angles from which these dynamic issues must be addressed. Considering the fact that each of us has a role in protecting our right to clean water, it is essential for us to be aware of such responsibility. And thus, enter the role of education. In the time I spend talking with clubs, classrooms, and even my peers, it is evident that younger generations are becoming significantly more aware of fundamental concepts like stormwater runoff, other forms of water pollution, and the impact we have on our natural resources as individuals. Until recently, many of these concepts have not introduced in educational systems at an early age. Instead, they have been reserved for only the dedicated and the passionate ones who have had a known and invested interest in protecting our rivers, creeks, and wetlands.

During my visit to Oakbrook, however, I felt encouraged by the level of awareness these students had. There is no arguing that in 20 years, these individuals will be the decision-makers throughout our world, and I am comforted that as long as we are investing in our educational system, and promoting concepts of environmental stewardship and leadership, we are securing a future with abundant fish, clean beaches, and crisp rivers; however, if we neglect to educate ourselves and the future generations on the importance of protecting our waterways, we will fail before we even know.

I’m looking forward to watching Ms. Buffum’s 4th grade class of Water Warriors grow to be responsible users of our waterways and protectors of this fundamental right.

Thanks for a wonderful day, guys; I was deeply inspired! It was such a pleasure meeting all of you!

Ms. Buffum's 4th grade class of Water Warriors at Oakbrook Elementary School (May 24, 2011).