LaHave River. Image: Stella Bowles, Facebook

Science is not strictly the domain of academics in white coats. Anyone can be a citizen scientist, collecting and analyzing data from the natural world. It’s a great way to learn more about science and the environment, but citizen science can be more than just a self-improving hobby. Eleven-year-old Stella Bowles combined citizen science with social media savvy to rescue the river near her home.

LaHave River

When Bowles was 11, she wanted to swim in the LaHave River, which runs near her home in Nova Scotia, Canada. Her mother told her the water was too contaminated to swim in because toilets in homes along the LaHave flushed directly into the river through illegal straight pipes.

Bowles didn’t just take her mother’s word for it. Bowles collected water samples from several locations along the river where people swam or boated. She enlisted the help of her science mentor, Dr. David Maxwell, for help testing her water samples. Maxwell researched and compiled a water testing kit, and assisted Bowles to ensure she conducted the tests accurately.

Science and Social Media

Finding levels of fecal contamination far above Canada’s federal standards for swimming or boating, Bowles started a campaign to inform her neighbors, many of whom did swim and boat on the river. She put up a sign on the wharf and set up a Facebook page to spread the word. The information reached thousands of residents in and around her small town of about 25,000 people. Many locals didn’t know that hundreds of homes in neighboring communities along the river were using straight pipes until they saw Bowles’ Facebook page.

The public outcry sparked by Bowles’ data resulted in a $15 million government investment in cleaning up the LaHave River. In the past, the communities ignored straight pipes unless a neighbor made a specific complaint. Now, citizens must prove that their homes are compliant with wastewater regulations. Officials plan to replace up to 100 straight pipes with septic systems annually through 2023.

Stella Bowles and Anne Laurel Carter holding copies of "My River."
Stella Bowles with Anne Laurel Carter, who wrote “My River,” an account of Stella’s efforts to clean up the LeHave River. Photo: Andrea Conrad

Ripple Effect

Award-winning Canadian author Anne Laurel Carter tells the story of Bowles’ fight to clean the river in My RiverWritten in Bowles’ voice, the book helps kids understand that science isn’t just something in a textbook, and that they can make a difference through local environmental activism. It’s a message many adults could stand to learn as well.

It’s true that we don’t all have an obvious environmental science project flowing right outside our front doors. For the rest of us, websites like SciStarter can help citizens of all ages connect with science projects. And if you can’t find a project that you want to participate in, highly rated water-focused charities could still use our help cleaning up water around the world.

Feature image by Andrea Conrad

By Gemma Alexander

Gemma Alexander has an M.S. in urban horticulture and a backyard filled with native plants. After working in a genetics laboratory and at a landfill, she now writes about the environment, the arts and family. See more of her writing here.