The Sun Foundation’s Clean Water Celebration marks Earth Day with a unique community-wide celebration of H2O.
“Most people don’t get too excited about water, but really, name one aspect of your life that’s not impacted by it. You can’t do it!” challenges Paul Ritter, teacher at Pontiac Township High School and the National Science Teachers Association’s Outstanding Environmental Educator of the Year. “Water is something that communities and people and nations have been fighting over since the dawn of time. The substance occupies 72 percent of our earth and yet two-thirds of our planet lacks access to clean drinking water.”
Ritter’s voice amplifies as he speaks—evidence of his passion for the conservation of “our universal solvent.” And his voice is not alone.
For nearly two decades, the Clean Water Celebration has brought the people of central Illinois together to celebrate the “lifeblood of our planet.” Each year, students, teachers, community leaders and the general public participate in two days of events “to learn to improve water quality, to think critically and creatively about adequate and safe water supplies, and to promote the wise use of natural resources.” The program has motivated over 37,000 participants to take pause to “value water and the environment in which it comes from,” explains Karen Cotton of Illinois American Water, a key sponsor. “If we can do that, we’re ensuring quality water for generations.”
A CWC For All
Joan Ericksen of the Sun Foundation, the Washburn-based organization whose mission is to advance the environmental sciences and arts, explains how the Clean Water Celebration (CWC) model first grew in collaboration with the Illinois Rivers Project. The IRP started in 1990 as a small pilot program for students to exchange research and best practices in conservation, and soon evolved into a network of statewide and then regional schools.
Using the IRP conference as a basis, the Sun Foundation formed a committee to develop a model for a similar, but more comprehensive CWC event. “Our dream was that the CWC would take place in every city, every state and every country, and that all the research awareness and education that would come from it would have a link to water quality that would be not only local, but global,” Ericksen explains. “We wanted to do it in a way that any community, no matter what their financial resources, could create their own CWC.”
The program soon expanded, and the Sun Foundation began incorporating the State of Illinois’ learning objectives in its two-day “environmental classroom” events, with different themes each year to prompt deeper discussions. “We began to have artists and scientists join and do breakout sessions,” explains Ericksen, “and the Department of Natural Resources joined and provided watershed educational units.”
Today, the Sun Foundation’s free manual has been in high demand as CWCs launch all across the country and even internationally. Locally, the event grows each year—more than 3,000 student participants are expected to attend this year’s events.
“Each year we focus on something different,” Ericksen explains. “This year, the students will be taking a special pledge: to drink from the taps and to eliminate plastic bottle use. If they carry water with them, we ask that they pledge to use a reusable bottle to cut down on the plastics.”
Cotton explains the value of the pledge. “A lot of people are surprised to hear that tap water is delivered to your home for about a penny a gallon. When you compare that to about $2 for a 16 oz. bottle of water, there’s quite a savings there. And, you can refill sports bottles. Bottled water doesn’t deliver what tap water does—you can cook with it, clean with it, use it for fire protection and economic development…
“It is such a natural thing to turn on the tap and have water there when we need it, but it’s hard to imagine a day without it,” Cotton explains. A major goal of the Clean Water Celebration, she says, is to show students that they can make a difference.
Water is Life
“These young people are amazing,” Ericksen gushes. “We’re…motivating them and giving them the knowledge to make a difference…as stewards of the planet. They have the energy, the pure hearts and they have a vision—and it is their future.”
“An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure,” Ritter explains. “Look at the smallmouth bass population in the Potomac River or the frogs in Horicon Marsh or the fathead minnow population in Lake Michigan. If we are not proactive…, it will be too late. So, the celebration of water is easy for me to get excited about… Have you ever been around 2,000 kids that are all excited? The feeling in the air is like the energy of a nuclear power plant,” he laughs.
And if they’re all as excited as Ritter, there’s no doubt the energy will be contagious. iBi
The Clean Water Celebration takes place April 22nd and 23rd on the Peoria Riverfront and at the GAR Hall and Peoria Civic Center. For a full schedule of events, visit sunfoundation.org.
Built in 1890, four gargoyles stand atop the original Romanesque-style Main Pumping Station and Well at 100 Lorentz Avenue at Route 29 in Peoria. The gargoyles once spewed water from their mouths to “protect” the water source, says Karen Cotton, of Illinois American Water. “Unfortunately, they didn’t think out the design and it did damage, so they had to shut off that aspect of the building.”
The historic building houses artifacts documenting the history of water in Peoria, including wooden mains, old water meters, lab equipment and an old steam engine. These are among the items the public can see when the Illinois Historical Water Museum reopens in this building in June.