At some point on the path to adulthood, children make a startling discovery: The world does not revolve around the events of their own lives. Somewhere in the middle of school drama, relationships and homework, youth suddenly look up and realize their daily decisions have real, lasting consequences for the world around us.
Some children make this discovery while – half-covered in dirt – they carefully place a fresh plant into the ground.
Such was the case for Christine Phan, a Curtis High School sophomore who spearheaded the installation of a rain garden at her school last year. Her goal was to keep one area from flooding whenever it would rain, so students wouldn’t have to hop across the water.
Rain gardens are designed to collect dirty rainwater from roads and driveways, and filter out pollutants before letting the water back into the ground. This reduces the amount of polluted water going into the Puget Sound. Phan learned about rain gardens at nearby Narrows View Intermediate School, when her class helped install one for Earth Day.
If Narrows View could have a rain garden, why couldn’t the high school?
Building a rain garden isn’t easy, as Phan already knew when she made her case before the school administrators. She would have to find the right location to intercept the rainwater, convince sponsors to pay for it, and then get someone to help excavate the site and bring in special soil and plants.
Luckily, there are organizations willing to help. The Pierce Conservation District assists with design and installation of rain gardens, and has helped 50 households build gardens on their property since 2009.
Since each project can cost as much as $5,000, the district tries to connect groups of homeowners who are interested in partnering with their neighbors.
With help from the Conservation District and her school’s Environmental Club, Phan convinced Curtis administrators to undertake the project. After a year of planning and two days of work, the Curtis High School rain garden was complete.
Stories like Phan’s may seem small on the surface. But combine all the rain gardens springing up around the South Sound and the ripple effects on the environment can be enormous.
Water pollution in the Puget Sound is a “non-point source” problem, which means that the usual suspects – factories and chemical plants – cause a very small amount of it. The real culprit, believe it or not, is rain. When rainwater runs across streets and landscapes, it picks up oils, dirt and other particulates. This all runs unfiltered straight into the Puget Sound. Between 14 million and 29 million pounds of pollutants enter the Sound every year, according to the state Department of Ecology.
You might think that Phan has now become a passionate environmental activist, or that she is planning to pursue a degree in natural resources conservation when she gets to college. But she has actually never thought of herself as an environmentalist. She began studying nature because adults kept talking about the environment around her, and she wanted to learn more. She did the rain garden project both to solve a practical problem and to help the environment. And her club looks forward to helping install another rain garden at Chambers Primary School next year.
After that, she plans to attend a university to study animation or film-making. While it’s a far cry from the outdoors, Phan offered some reflective thoughts about her plans.
“While that’s not too typical of an ‘environmentalist,’” she said, “maybe it’s a good sign that someone who isn’t entirely planning a future around such a career can recognize the importance of the Earth and will still invest in the environment anyway.”
Somewhere along the way, though, she has made a startling discovery. She suddenly wishes more people would be aware of how their actions affect the world around them. She feels that more nature programs in elementary school would be a very good idea. And from time to time, she finds herself using really cheesy phrases like “global awareness.”
Nature does that to you sometimes.