By FRANK CARINI/ecoRI News staff
BRISTOL, R.I. — Until this school year, the three Mt. Hope High School seniors hadn’t realized, or even considered, for that matter, the importance of Silver Creek. It was just some brackish water across the street from Sip ’n Dip Donuts that sometimes smelled bad.
Lauren Deschenes, Lindsey Benevides and Cassidy Goff will graduate next month with a better appreciation for Silver Creek and Bristol Harbor. They learned the importance of the Silver Creek watershed by spending the past nine months traipsing through mud, braving winter winds and swatting mosquitoes.
The three girls and 15 other students from Christine Bean’s science class visited an area of Silver Creek behind the VFW on Hope Street every few weeks. There, they meet up with Rob Hancock and Bob Aldrich of Save Bristol Harbor and Kati Maginel, a Save The Bay educator. They were taught how to monitor, observe and protect this vital watershed. They got their hands dirty planting salt-marsh grasses and their hands wet collecting water samples.
These every-three-weeks-or-so field trips also freed the engaged students from stuffy classrooms to explore a long-ignored community treasure.
“We learned a lot about wetlands,” Benevides said. “We didn’t know that Silver Creek was in bad shape or that the harbor was in trouble. We learned how to repair and protect these natural resources.”
Save Bristol Harbor's mission is to preserve the integrity of the town’s coastal waters and watersheds. Among the best ways to accomplish that goal is to educate future leaders. The organization, with no paid staff, promotes responsible environmental practices, supports educational initiatives and forms partnerships to ensure the long-term health of the community’s water resources.
The Silver Creek field studies program was the brainchild of Aldrich and the late Marcia King, an educator and an impassioned environmentalist. Her Mt. Hope High School students were the first to conduct fieldwork and collect data in partnership with Save Bristol Harbor. The program is now in its fourth year.
In that time, Mt. Hope High School students have helped restore Sliver Creek, an important wetlands in the center of town, into a healthy marsh.
“I’ve been impressed with what the kids have accomplished,” said Aldrich, chairman of Save Bristol Harbor’s harbor monitoring committee. “It’s a great partnership. Silver Creek is a great laboratory to help the students better understand the environment.”
Save Bristol Harbor was formed in 2003 in large part in opposition to Cumberland Farms’ proposed development of a gas station-convenience store adjacent to Silver Creek. Today, Save Bristol Harbor is recognized as a regional environmental leader with a range of educational programs for students in both the Bristol-Warren elementary and high schools and is engaged in a range of science-based collaborations with the University of Rhode Island and Brown University designed to protect the waters and watersheds of Bristol and beyond.
The Silver Creek watershed is 2 square miles and extends from Tupelo Street, discharging into Bristol Harbor under Route 114 and the East Bay Bike Path. Parts of it were filled in to serve as the town landfill and to create athletic fields. Development encroached on the fragile watershed. These land-use decisions restricted water flow in and out of the watershed and poured polluted runoff into the creek, slowly turning the once-vibrant habitat into a shell of its former self.
Hancock, Save Bristol Harbor’s board president, would often bring his wife and two young children with him when he collected water samples from Silver Creek. It made for a nice day out with the family, as long as they didn’t put their hands or feet in the creek.
“I had to make sure I told the kids not to touch the water,” he said. “It was contaminated.”
The deteriorating condition of the creek’s watershed also was negatively impacting Bristol Harbor. Silver Creek had became a major source of pollution and nutrient loads into the town’s beloved harbor.
To bring the Silver Creek watershed back to life, Mt. Hope High students, Save Bristol Harbor volunteers, Save The Bay educators and many others have pulled tires and shopping carts from the creek and have cleared filled-in access points to allow better drainage.
“The marsh needs salt water, but it also needs the salt water to leave. It needs tidal flow,” Hancock said. “If we can get the system right again, it will fix itself.”
In the span of four years, Save Bristol Harbor’s partnership with the public schools has the Silver Creek watershed well on its way to recovery.
In addition to the Silver Creek field studies program, Save Bristol Harbor board members and other volunteers annually present watershed lessons to every fourth-grade classroom in Bristol and Warren, and run other environmental programs designed to educate and engage students.
“These programs help connect the community with their environment,” Hancock said. "Students see and interact with community members who are concerned about maintaing a healthy environment.”
Starting in May and continuing through October, Save Bristol Harbor volunteers collect water samples at 14 stations in the harbor and in Silver Creek. This dedicated group also is working on a computer-based modeling project with URI researchers designed to help protect the harbor’s water quality.
“We try to connect community through programs and projects to protect some of Bristol’s special places,” Hancock said.