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Friends of the Rivers challenge community: Be the solution to end pollution

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Julia Meek/WBOI
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Gilmore & Walters point out that Fort Wayne's drinking water is ranked 6th in the world and must be protected.

Fort Wayne’s eco-friendly grass roots organization Friends of the Rivers is kicking off Phase 2 of its three-year city wide Clean Drains Initiative with another timely reminder to be River SmART!

A collaborative effort with Fort Wayne City Utilities, Clean Drains is an education and community outreach/engagement project that uses art to convey the message… only rain in the drain!

Along with another call for artists to design and paint thirty-three storm drain murals around town, neighborhoods and elementary school classes are encouraged to step up and become officially involved as Drain Stormers, dedicated to protecting the storm drains in their vicinity and keeping them clean of trash and debris.

WBOI’s Julia Meek discusses the group’s progress, the importance of the mission and this year’s focus with board members Irene Walters and Lynne Gilmore.

You can learn more and become involved at the Friends of the Rivers website.

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Courtesy/Friends of the Rivers
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Julia Meek: Irene Walters, Lynn Gilmore, welcome.

Lynne Gilmore: Hi, Julia.

Irene Walters: Hi.

Julia Meek: Now you have been on the ground running with your clean drains project since early last summer. Irene, Would you remind us of foot when friends of the rivers and this initiatives mission and vision?

Irene Walters: Sure, Friends of the Rivers is a grassroots nonprofit that cares about elevating the value and importance of our treasures, our three rivers. And Clean Drains Fort Wayne, in partnership with City Utilities, is an initiative to inform people and make them aware that whatever goes down our storm drains goes directly into our rivers and can make them dirty instead of keeping them clean. Last year, we had 34 beautiful murals with that "only rain in the drain" message near each one. So people got to understand that only rain should go down the drain--no trash, no dog poop, no gasoline, no grass clippings--only rain because everything goes directly into our rivers.

Julia Meek: That seems like a simple and a basic concept. And of course, it is very, very necessary. What kind of complications do you find, though, in actually trying to spread that word, Lynne?

Lynne Gilmore: Well, the challenge is that we just think a drain is a drain. And we don't understand that those storm drains go directly into the river. Anything that is not clean water that goes into the drains is untreated. So you have debris, you have chemicals that are going into the drain, even something as simple as when you wash your car and you think, Oh, that soap and the water is going down on the drain. Isn't that great? Well, no, that's not great, because there are additives and soap products that you wash your car with that are unclean, I don't want to say toxic, but you know, in some respects it is. And then when you think about the fish and the wildlife, the birds and the frogs and the turtles that live in our rivers, we're really exposing those living creatures to things that are not good for them, let alone the vitality of our rivers.

Julia Meek: So just because we've gotten away with it, we might say, all these years, we can't keep going?

Lynne Gilmore: Right. We can't. And when you think about the phenomenal development around our rivers in downtown Fort Wayne over the last several years, and the additional development going on, we know that the usage of the rivers is going to increase exponentially. So let's keep those rivers clean. And it's everybody's responsibility to do that. So Clean Crains Fort Wayne is all about education and awareness and what we can do as individuals to satisfy clean drains.

Julia Meek: And since Phase 2 of that initiative is gearing up, that's the Drain Stormer phase, what are you building directly on those first goals that you've already achieved, beginning with the neighborhoods that you're approaching.

Irene Walters: We want the neighborhoods to be the solution to end pollution. And so that's one of the phrases that we asked the artists to incorporate on the drains. And we're talking to all the different neighborhood associations to engage their hearts and their minds, so they will adopt a drain, paint some pictures around the drain and put down an actual marker that gives the message, "only rain in the drain." And the neighborhoods are signing up! Last year, we had 5, this year we have over 10 and ou r goal is 20 this year. Some neighborhoods are doing like a block party. So it's a collective effort and a team building effort. And it not only keeps the rivers clean, it keeps the streets clean, gets rid of all the litter--so it's a double advantage. I think we're on a roll and a good one, and the momentum is building.

Julia Meek: That's fantastic. You have also been rallying the kids into awareness and action as well, directly. What's happening in phase two of your Elementary School Program.

Lynne Gilmore: Well, the fact that we have an Elementary School Program is a big part of the initiative. And to date, we have over 20 schools that have signed up to be a Drain Stormer School. We're working with kindergarten up to fifth grade and the opportunities address the Indiana standards for science, math and art. So it will be a collaborative effort within the schools that have signed up. This is going to be a chance for the kids to get out, walk around their school find and identify the storm drain, talk about what that storm drain means and where the water goes and how to keep it clean. And then they can work collaboratively to come up with a design to draw around that storm drain. And then when they have accomplished that, Friendly the Otter can make a visit to the school. Friendly the Otter is our mascot, They will have a chance to have their picture taken with Friendly, but it's also a way to celebrate their accomplishments. We also hope that the students will take the message home about storm drains and talk with their family and neighborhood. So we see this exponentially adding up to where we have 1000s of people who are actively engaged in protecting those storm drains.

Julia Meek: Turning kids on to ecosystems and preservation's certainly key for this whole project. So at this rate, where do you think it could go as these kids become young adults and leaders? In the medium and long term, what kind of impetus and action do you hope they'll carry forward in their own lives?

Lynne Gilmore: Well, I think that because of the awareness of climate change, and protecting the environment, I think this sets up that opportunity for kids to understand the value of what they bring to respecting Mother Nature, and the phenomenal rivers we have, literally in our own backyard. The ongoing enjoyment of those community assets are going to be protected by them, we might create new environmentalists, because these kids are actively engaged and excited about what we're doing.

Julia Meek: Hope you're right there, Lynne. And meanwhile, let's look back at those glorious storm drain murals, you actually got 34 of them painted and noticed in that first phase, can you measure differences this has made or activities or conversations, it's even opened up since then?

Irene Walters: I think people have become very aware of storm drains, whereas before they would walk past him and not even notice them. And now all of a sudden, oh, there is a storm drain, there's a storm drain! And I see people picking up things and removing leaves and being much more conscious. There is definitely an increased awareness. And by putting those medallions down, that gives the message to people, only rain in the drain. Also, anything but h2o is a no-no.

Julia Meek: (Chuckles) That's very, very clever. Who knew that things like storm drains could be, in fact have been hidden in plain sight all these years? What do you two think as sort of spearheaders with this whole project--folks are still learning that storm drains exist and what they're for?

Lynne Gilmore: You really hit it on the head with that, that you know, they are hidden in plain sight. And we think of storm drains, and it's just like anything that goes down the drain is fine. And because there are long curbs that it just was a direction for excess water to flow out of the streets. But it's more than that, because we never thought about where that water goes and how it's connected. Our partnership with City Utilities has been so instrumental in educating our committee which in turn, you know, we're educating the community about how all of those things intersect, because even though they're hidden in plain sight, all of that plumbing is underground. So we don't see that. And we don't know that it comes out into the river untreated. So it's a wonderful myriad of exercises, and really grasping what we can do as individuals to make sure that our rivers stay clean.

Julia Meek: And just a word on having a partnership with such an amazing part of our infrastructure. What's it like working with City Utilities?

Irene Walters: We are so grateful for their partnership, they are so passionate about the quality of water, and about keeping our riverfront clean and educating people in our community. They have given us so many tools to help us understand so we can convey the need to others, but they can't do it all and we can help implement. It takes a village. It's a collective effort together, we're stronger. And we have to sustain this because we're planting seeds in the little kids right now to be river stewards, when they get older. They are going to influence their friends, they're going to influence their parents, and our whole community is going to be stronger from this effort.

Julia Meek: We certainly hope so. And of course the fate and future of our rivers along with the community certainly is going to shine. Now let's crunch just a few more numbers here. 34 drains painted the first year. We have 29,000 drains. So what's feasible as we do go forward? There is awareness, there is enthusiasm for this activity. What do we hope we can accomplish?

Irene Walters: Okay, well, we can be aspirational and set high goals but we can never paint 29,000 drains, and so far, 22,000 of the drains are unmarked. So our goal for this year is 10%-- 2200 that we are going to clean and mark and then next year, probably another 2200. And that again, if there are messages on all those drains, people will get the word and hopefully will then spring into action because it's not about the word. It's about the implementation and keeping our drains clean.

Julia Meek: Sure a worthy goal too.

Lynne Gilmore: Right.

Julia Meek: So best of luck all the way around. And I am kind of curious, how do we compare with other metro areas our size, in these endeavors.

Irene Walters: There have been a number of cities that have done murals, but from our research, and each of the committee members has researched a city, none of them have gone as deeply as we into trying to get the schools involved and the neighborhoods involved. It's just more of an art project that has a message. Whereas we really want the actions and to change behaviors. And that takes time and education.

Lynne Gilmore: And Friends of the Rivers being the organization that manages all this is responsible for this, I think it's also a difference. And what Fort Wayne has been able to do, because we as board members are keeping the focus on the education and continuing to move forward, the whole initiative, not every city has three rivers, but we know that the interrelationship of those rivers long term on our community is huge. I think that that separates us from other city areas that it may have been just a one time activity. But here, that's the mission of Friends of the rivers. That makes us even more unique and as Irene said, the more people we get involved, the more attention we make to this project, the better our community is going to be, the safer it's going to be.

Irene Walters: Our rivers are a magnet. And it's very important for us to keep improving the health of our rivers. Those are our "gold." We don't have mountains, and we don't have oceans. But we have these wonderful rivers. And we can't forget, that's how we get our drinking water. And our drinking water is the sixth best drinking water in the whole world. So we're very proud of that. And it really takes a village to make sure that we maintain and sustain the quality.

Julia Meek: And it's a worthwhile goal for the future. It is the future.

Irene Walters: It helps for quality of life. It helps for quality of place. It attracts new businesses to come and look at what Promenade Park-- you know, before, we ignored our rivers. We had turned our backs and now all of a sudden we have this jewel in the middle of the city that is such an inclusive place for everybody to come and hang out and recreate and meditate and just enjoy. The river is our magnet.

Julia Meek: And therefore, sends its own message and helps everybody carry this forward. That's just fantastic. So with Earthday coming up, you will be at Little Rivers Wetland Project's celebration on Sunday, recruiting neighborhoods, families, individuals, just as we are right now. What's on your own agenda for this summer?

Lynne Gilmore: It's going to be a busy summer. We have a schedule for when murals will be painted in the neighborhoods and around town.

Irene Walters: So the southeast and southwest artists will be painting their murals in August. Northeast and northwest artists will be painting in July, and in September, from the 10th to the 17th, downtown will have an additional Mural Trail leading to Promenade Park.

Julia Meek: So this mural trail has been evolving since the original 34 that you did in Phase 1 last year. What kind of a motivation is it for the kids and the neighborhoods and everything to go forward now?

Lynne Gilmore: Yeah, as we talk with the students at the end of their project, we've encouraged them to go downtown and check out all of the murals around the storm drains and learn more about what the message is, why it's important that only rain goes into the drains.

Julia Meek: So it sounds like in this second year of Phase 2 of the project, you're really combining, well of course the art which is fun, the neighborhoods which is our sense of place, fair and square, and then the school kids--you're tying them all together and truly, besides there being strength in numbers, you really are gaining some amazing momentum this way.

Irene Walters: Yes. In fact, on World Rivers Day, September 25, the artists will be recognized who did all the new 34 murals, the neighborhoods will be recognized as Drain Stormer Neighborhoods and the schools will be recognized as Drain Stormer schools, but the whole community is invited because it will be a fantastic family friendly fun day. Everything is free, except the food trucks, but there'll be music, free boat rides, pontoon rides, all kinds of interactive activities. And we are introducing something new the night before. We are showing a movie, Finding Nemo, because as you know, Nemo went down the drain and into the ocean so it fits our theme and we are inviting families to bring their picnics and their blankets and watch the movie and also ride on Sweet Breeze--have free rides. So we are looking forward to a fantastic World Rivers Day this year.

Julia Meek: It certainly sounds it, and meanwhile, what does this indepth initiative and determination mean for the future--not only of those three rivers we love but that of our entire community?

Irene Walters: The initiative to maintain a vibrant riverfront is so important. It's really essential to our region's quality of life and to our economic vitality. And it really behooves all of us as a collective, as a community, to keep our drains clean, because that will keep our rivers beautiful and give good drinking water.

Lynne Gilmore: And when we think about the environment and things related to climate, it's like, where am I in this equation? It's big stuff. But if we find ways to parse out some element of responsibility, then we realize it's that collective effort that's really going to make a big impact. But it starts with me. It starts with you. It starts with all the individuals. Fort Wayne being so artcentric, this is a wonderful way to blend all of the things that we love about our community and that community artcentricity extends to our rivers. So the engagement, the enjoyment, the enthusiasm is what we're looking forward to.

Julia Meek: Irene Walters and Lynn Gilmore are board members of Friends of the Rivers Fort Wayne. Thank you for the work you do and the story you share. Your three-year clean drain project is remarkable. Onward.

Lynne Gilmore: Thanks for telling our story, Julia.

Irene Walters: Thank you Julia.

A Fort Wayne native, Julia is a radio host, graphic artist, and community volunteer, who has contributed to NIPR both on- and off-air for forty years. Besides being WBOI's arts & culture reporter, she currently co-produces and hosts Folktales and Meet the Music.