Inspiring a Love for the Columbia

Our Community Programs Promote Education, Action, and Connection.

By Lorri Epstein, Water Quality Director
Originally published in Columbia Riverkeeper “Currents” Issue 3, 2023.


headshot of Lorri Epstein, Water Quality Director
Lorri Epstein (photo credit: Modoc Stories)

It’s the call of the black crowned night heron, known to roost near the Nichols Natural Area. But this time the call isn’t coming from a bird. It’s coming from a second-grade student named Olivia who has adopted the role of a heron.

She is excitedly asking me for a fish (in this case represented by a Cheerio) to take back to her well-camouflaged nest while vigilantly dodging predators, played by classmates Xavier and Rosie. Olivia is one of 650 students who visited the Nichols Natural Area with Columbia Riverkeeper this year. Through the Engaging Communities program, students learned about restoration, water quality, riparian ecosystems, and the species, like black crowned night herons, that rely on this habitat.

“Kids make the best scientists.” That’s the secret I whisper as the students lean in close. Who, if anyone, is more curious and experimental than a kid in the outdoors? Columbia Riverkeeper programs help them hone their skills, learn new tools, and discover deep connections. Students learn to make observations, tap into their natural curiosity, and learn about all the ways riparian ecosystems support the river and the life connected to it. At the Nichols Natural Area, kids and young adults aren’t confined by classroom walls. The learning happens through fun games, hands-on activities, and the occasional bird-based role play.
“Columbia Riverkeeper’s educational work at Nichols Natural Area provides a wonderfully engaging opportunity for site-based, relevant education for our elementary-aged students,” explains second-grade teacher Joelena Evans. “Our students learn about the habitat as well as their role in helping to preserve it. This is an area that our students may recreate near regularly, so [Columbia Riverkeeper’s] education makes it all the more relevant to them.”

Middle School teacher Adam Smith echoes,

Riverkeeper’s work, not only on the river but within classrooms, is critical to fostering healthy ecosystems and communities. Their curriculum has been super helpful—place-based, connected to standards, and accessible to my students.

Through the Engaging Communities program, the team at Columbia Riverkeeper aims to connect people to the river and celebrate the diverse, vibrant cultures within river communities. This includes community events and programs at the Nichols Natural Area, as well as in-person and online education. Over the last five years, Columbia Riverkeeper has continued to expand our relationship-building efforts to Latina/o/x communities with culturally specific outreach and engagement, producing bilingual radio shows and the podcast Conoce Tu Columbia (Know Your Columbia) on environmental and social justice issues, and providing additional materials in Spanish.

Columbia Riverkeeper also monitors the river to give people the confidence to swim. This year marked the 17th season of bacteria testing to help keep you and your family safe. Government agencies don’t routinely monitor water quality in the Columbia—let alone make data easily accessible to people in multiple languages. Columbia Riverkeeper provides access to water quality data and culturally informed messaging, so people can make choices to use the river—and get inspired to fight for clean water.

This year, Columbia Riverkeeper’s paid summer interns collected 240 samples and a remarkable 98 percent were within the safe limits for E. coli bacteria. These exceptional results are welcome news for everyone who likes to swim, splash, play, and relax on the river. But it’s not only about bacteria levels regarding recreation. Our team tests water quality, investigates pollution, monitors for toxic algae, and arms the public with the data and information to stay safe and hold polluters accountable.

With your support, Columbia Riverkeeper will continue to engage communities with opportunities for education, action, and connection.  

Help us protect and restore the Columbia River