Early Start

An Idaho treatment plant’s lab manager reaches out to third-graders to help protect water quality of the Snake River
Early Start

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With Idaho’s Snake River running through her community, Jacque Nation has a keen interest in protecting the resource. As a former teacher and now laboratory manager at the City of Blackfoot Wastewater Treatment Plant, the time she spends sharing her mission with elementary school students should come as no surprise.

The Snake River is an important resource for an arid region that pins much of its economy on potato-growing and outdoor recreation. Nation, who was named the Pacific Northwest Clean Water Association’s 2010 Idaho Laboratory Operator of the Year, says there are many reasons she wants to teach young students about water quality.

“The river is very vital to this area,” she says. “We use it for irrigation, we use it for recreation. We live pretty high up in the watershed, so it’s quite pristine, and we have an obligation to keep it clean for everybody.”

Nation offers a River Rangers program that teaches third-graders in the Blackfoot School District things they need to know to help protect local water resources.


Sharing knowledge

Before moving to Blackfoot, Nation taught junior high science. When she and her family arrived in the city, in southeast Idaho, there were no teaching jobs open, so she applied for a job as a lab technician at the treatment plant. Even with her college degree and teaching credentials, the training for her new job was eye-opening.

“As I learned more and more about wastewater treatment, I began wondering, wow, why wasn’t I teaching this to my seventh- and eighth-graders?” she recalls. As her knowledge of treatment grew, she began seeking ways to share it with students. She discovered the River Rangers program offered by Clean Water Services (CWS), a regional utility in Hillsboro, Ore.

The program, introduced in Blackfoot in 1991, focuses on “sewer and storm drain” citizenship. CWS developed it to encourage young people to protect the Tualatin River Watershed. The program includes classroom presentations and a colorful booklet focusing on substances that could hurt the treatment plant or harm septic systems and cause groundwater pollution.

Nation says the value of the program has risen as school budgets have become constricted. “Field trips are often the first casualty of education budget cuts, but River Rangers allow us to take our field trip to the classroom,” she says. “Our city population is 10,000 with five elementary schools that enroll students whose homes are connected to our sewer system. With two to three hours per school per year, the time requirements are minimal, and we reach nearly every family that has a third-grader at some point.”


A good fit

Nation says third-graders are a good target audience. First, teachers like the program because it fits nicely into social studies lessons (the Blackfoot schools focus on local services in the third grade). Second, 8-year-olds are just beginning to form habits, and it’s easier for kids to learn good habits from the start than to break bad habits later.

“When we talk about the sanitary system, we talk about not putting anything down the drain that would be toxic to our activated sludge system or to the river if it passed through our system,” Nation says.

Finally, 8-year-olds are at a developmental stage where they are focused on learning and following rules. She says the children, act as “little enforcers,” go home and teach the rules to their families.

River Rangers send children home with assignments that require parental participation. The booklet includes a set of stickers the kids can attach to household substances that should not be dumped down the drain or on the ground, like pesticides and paint. When the parents sign a card to confirm the assignment is done, their child gets a refrigerator magnet identifying him or her as a River Ranger.

Nation sees a lasting impact from her program as teachers get more involved. Many teachers move to the back of the classroom to work on lesson plans while she makes her presentation. “But ten minutes in, they’ll be looking up, and pretty soon they’ll be fully engaged,” Nation says. She believes teachers will continue to teach about water quality if she can get them interested in her presentation.


Reaching farther

Nation recounts a time when she and some volunteers were stenciling storm drains outside an elementary school and a third-grade teacher noticed them. The teacher had been so impressed with River Rangers that she brought her entire class outside to see the stenciling and discuss the importance of protecting water quality.

Although Nation’s focus has been on third-graders, her reach has gone farther. She presents the booklet and an explanatory letter to new members of the Blackfoot City Council after each election.

The only hiatus in Blackfoot’s River Rangers program came several years ago when Nation took a job with another wastewater utility. But the program picked up right where it left off when she returned in 2008. Since then, Nation has taken pretreatment coordinator Alex Dawson under her wing, and she is developing a staged presentation that involves both of them working with the students.

Nation has the support of her managers at the treatment plant, including William Bottles, former plant superintendent, who started and supported River Rangers 20 years ago, and current superintendent Mike Merlette.

Nation coordinates all public tours at the treatment plant. In addition, the local Wal-Mart store has invited her to take part in its Earth Day activities. She uses that opportunity to share information about River Rangers and storm drain stenciling.

She welcomes invitations to share her interests in water quality: “It’s enabled us to reach even the people who would probably never attend an environmental fair.”


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