Rescued on a River

May 1, 2015, Department, by Samantha Bartram

Austin Youth River Watch participants test nitrate levels at Bright Leaf Preserve, a 200-acre nature preserve in central northwest Austin. Austin Youth River Watch’s Executive Director, R. Brent Lyles, doesn’t mince words when talking about the importance of involving youth from diverse backgrounds in conservation and nature education. “Achieving sustainability in our world is not going to happen if the only people on board are the same people who have been in the environmental movement for decades,” he says. “We have got to get a more diverse community of people who care about the environment, who care about nature and who want to protect our planet.”

Formed 23 years ago, the Austin, Texas-based River Watch is the brainchild of the city of Austin and the Lower Colorado River Authority (LCRA), which oversees management of the water supply and environment of the lower Colorado River basin. The group was established with remarkable prescience on the part of municipal leaders faced with a cluster of concerns — in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Austin was experiencing increased incidents of teen violence that coincided with the town’s initial population explosion. Authorities were challenged to come up with a way to engage teens during their most critical idle hours — after-school and summertime — as well as mitigate the anticipated impacts of a huge influx of new residents on the city’s water system. River Watch, with its focus on “holistic youth development, environmental stewardship and academic success,” as stated by Lyles, was thus born.

River Watch isn’t a formal partner of the Austin Parks and Recreation Department (PARD), but its work related to water quality and connecting teens to nature tracks with PARD’s and the Austin Watershed Protection Department’s (WPD)  desire to have clean water, robust wetlands and a youth population passionate about environmental stewardship. And we’re not talking about youths who are already frequenting Austin’s many parks and fields for sports or other recreation. River Watch engages at-risk high-school-age teens, often from low-income backgrounds and families of color. Teens who often have fewer opportunities to travel to natural places or spend time in area parks. 

Unlikely Scientists

River Watch serves some 120 students annually, recruited from nine area high schools. “Most of the students in our program have been labeled at-risk by the [Austin Independent School District (ISD)] — that can be because they’ve failed a grade or missed a lot of school, or maybe they struggled academically in other ways,” Lyles explains. “River Watch students come into our program and ideally they stay all through high school. This is a long-term program for our kids, and as such it allows us to give them personal and academic support over a long period of time.” 

The majority of participants are recommended by older students already involved with River Watch or are identified by liaisons within the ISD, perhaps a science teacher or guidance counselor. The students are taught how to take water samples and test them for anomalies like dissolved oxygen, nitrates, conductivity, pH-levels and so on. This data is analyzed and recorded and then sent directly to WPD and LCRA, where it serves as a critical information source about water quality in and around the Colorado River. “Our data are valuable in two ways: one is recording long-term trends — we have data sets that go back 20 years at certain sites,” Lyles says. “The other is as early warning systems. We have lots of stories where we’re out visiting a site and all of a sudden there’s a spike in nitrates that wasn’t there last month. Next thing you know, we’re calling the city’s environmental hotline.”

Mateo Scoggins, an environmental specialist with WPD, says the students’ work is essential to maintaining a healthy Austin watershed. “They let us know when something is concerning, whether it’s bacteria or a large sediment plug coming down the river,” he says. “We periodically get together and talk about data, methodology, if they should be changing testing sites, etc.” WPD and PARD work closely where water quality, erosion control and habitat restoration are concerned, and Scoggins says that partnership trickles down to River Watch, as the teens spearhead riparian buffer plantings and similar projects. Scoggins emphasizes the students’ work is useful from a scientific and conservation standpoint, but he finds the group’s demographics particularly noteworthy. “[River Watch] takes a population in Austin that doesn’t generally spend a lot of time in and around streams and waterways and introduces them to really important stewardship goals and practices,” Scoggins says. “And they’re learning a bunch of other life skills that just happen to be told through that medium. I love that they’re using this very practical and real thing, at this place in our landscape, where they can learn about responsibility, accountability and stewardship. It’s a really fantastic partnership.”

Thriving with Support

While the sampling, testing and recording of water quality data is certainly a bedrock activity at River Watch, it’s but one facet of this unique program. Once the students’ site work is finished, they return to River Watch’s “clubhouse” where the work of academic, peer and even nutritional support begins. “The first thing they do is hit the fridge,” Lyles says, laughing. “We have a fridge full of healthy food — for some of our students from low-income households it’s great to have this unlimited supply of healthy food.” Then, some students will begin recording the day’s test data, while others will receive help with homework or enjoy unstructured time playing cards or shooting hoops. “We might do an activity around learning how to use a checking account, or filling out a FAFSA [Free Application for Federal Student Aid] form,” Lyles continues. “Some of these kids may be coming from a family where the parents didn’t go to college, so they need someone to tell them how that game is played. If a student is struggling in math or some other subject, we might be able to set them up with study help either from another student or staff that’s there. It’s on an organic, case-by-case basis, as different students have different needs.” 

River Watch’s once-a-week after-school activities last around three hours or more, after which, “we drive our students home — every one to their front door,” Lyles says. “It’s a lot of driving, but we’re removing an obstacle. We want students to participate in our program, but they may not have their own car. If transportation is an obstacle to participation, we can remove that obstacle.”

River Watch has also managed to move students’ financial roadblocks. To address the needs of teens who must earn money after school to help support their households, River Watch pays a stipend that roughly equals the wage offered at a fast-food job. “We pay them for their work as water quality monitors so they can say, ‘This is my job after school,’ and use it as a résumé builder, then we teach them how to write a résumé,” Lyles says.

The students who become involved with River Watch, whether a legacy (“Some of our students have several brothers or sisters going through River Watch — this year for the first time we have a second-generation River Watcher,” Lyles says) or new initiate, often experience a profound transformation. “The changes we see in kids’ lives can take different forms,” Lyles says. “For one kid it may be that they make the decision to stay in school and get their diploma. For others, it may be that they discover they actually love science — much to their own surprise. For another student, what he found in River Watch was a group of people who became his friends. This group had a different set of expectations than the group he usually hung out with. At River Watch the expectations of the group are that you will graduate high school and you will go to college. This was someone who had a very difficult home life — he was as at-risk as they come. The change I saw him experience at River Watch was that he became more self-confident and he began to see the potential in himself to be a leader.”

Click here for more information about Austin Youth River Watch, including updates on current projects, summertime activities, campouts and more. 

Samantha Bartram is the Associate Editor of Parks & Recreation magazine.