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A river can be a place to go for a weekend camping trip, a venue for a day excursion or a backdrop to an afternoon spent reading outdoors. For people like Patricia Tait – who find happiness in these liquid landmarks – the river is home, and the zeal to protect it is a strong current flowing through them.
Patricia is a volunteer river watcher for the Ottawa Riverkeeper, a program licensed by the international Waterkeeper Alliance, which preserves and protects water by connecting local organizations worldwide. Like the alliance, Ottawa Riverkeeper's central goal is swimmable, drinkable and fishable water.
Having lived on the river for more than 30 years, Patricia's life and the river are intertwined. Her connection can be traced back to childhood. "My first real encounter with the Ottawa River was in Norway Bay, a beautiful beach area on the Quebec side of the river, where we had a cottage. I learned to swim there when I was about six years old," she says.
Today, Patricia lives upriver from the site and spends as much time as possible on the river. "I am out in my canoe or kayak almost every day for exercise, to take the grandkids out, to see the sunset or to check up on the bald eagles and ospreys that nest near our bay."
As a water lover, Patricia was naturally attracted to the Ottawa Riverkeeper, an organization that believes if you use the river, you won't abuse it. She lives this sentiment and has added travelling to three different locations on the river to test temperature and turbidity – to help determine the quality of the resource – to her list of regular water activity.
When not on the water, Patricia can be found out advocating for its wellness. She regularly speaks to audiences about how the river acts as a watershed stretching more than 1,200 km in length. In 2014, her advocacy work and time spent in the field earned the conservationist the Mayor's City Builder Award.
As for what motivates her, that's a matter of the future. She hopes to inspire younger generations to continue her work and start a legacy of their own as watchers, advocates and protectors of the river.
Over the years, Patricia has witnessed highs and lows in the life cycle of the river. She remembers heartbreaking scenes like the "fish kill," when a heavy rainfall overflowed sanitation systems and changed the temperature of the river, resulting in the death of hundreds of catfish. Then there are the bright spots, like when she stumbled upon an aquatic organism called a bryozoan. "If you see them, the water is in good shape; it's a good thing," Patricia says. "They're so sensitive that they can't survive water with a pollution problem."
Patricia holds on to memories such as these with optimism, but remains aware that there are issues threatening wildlife dependent on the Ottawa River. She speaks passionately about non-natural shorelines, microplastics and invasive species, while voicing the most concern for a proposal quietly under way – one threatening to dump radioactive waste on the shores of the river.
"If successful, construction could begin as early as 2018. Leakage of contaminants into the river would be devastating – to aquatic life on the river and as a source of drinking water for millions of Canadians."
By preserving the habitat of her home river, Patricia hopes to make a larger impact on the global environment. "You help locally because you know that globally you are in trouble," she says. "If everybody does something locally, we're going to make life better."
Read on for Patricia's five tips to living a water-conscious life:
No. 1: "Never buy another plastic water bottle again."
Be wary of products that contain plastic, specifically microplastic. Patricia suggests people purchase a refillable water bottle and avoid whenever possible. "Plastic is part of our life, but the cheap plastic is awful. It's the plastic that everyone needs to go after – that's the plastic that breaks down and ends up in the oceans."
No. 2: "In your garden, select native plants."
Patricia has witnessed firsthand the effect invasive species can have on the surrounding habitat. People have spruced up their gardens with plants that – unknown to them – are not natural to the area and end up affecting the larger ecosystem. "Check with your garden centre," she suggests and find out what is native to your area. "The benefit of native plants is they are easy maintenance."
No. 3: "Build a rain garden."
Find a low spot in your garden or lawn that is at least three metres from the house and septic system to plant native vegetation. Make sure that the area receives full or partial sunlight and that water will properly drain into the soil. Patricia says you can test this by doing a percolation test. "Dig a hole and fill it with water. In a good drainage area you will see bubbles pop on top of the water; the slower the drainage rate, the deeper the depressed area must be. Typically, a rain garden should be 8 to 28 inches deep."
No. 4: "Any time you walk, pick up garbage."
Being conscious of the amount of garbage on the streets around you is something everyone can do easily. "If you walk on a busy street, there's going to be a drain. If the drain has garbage around it, then that garbage is going to end up going through the sanitation system, where it may or may not be caught and end up in the river."
No. 5 "Report anything in the water that doesn't look right."
Everyone can be a watcher of their local water source by keeping an eye out. "Gather up some friends and host a walk alongside a creek, a river or a pond." If there is something in the water that looks out of place, or something you can't dispose of yourself, report it.
This story is part of Living WE, a toolkit of ideas and inspiration for Canadians. It was created by WE, a movement that brings people together to create positive social change both locally and globally.