Beyond political will or ecological know-how, restoring the Chesapeake Bay and other impaired waters across the country requires a good deal of manpower.
It takes workers and “waders in the water,” as one firm puts it, to physically return rivers, streams and wetlands to a more natural state.
It’s work that Trout Headwaters, Inc., a private water restoration company, has been doing nationwide for nearly 20 years — and work that the company, through a new partnership with The Corps Network, now plans to equip youth corps nationwide to do.
“The idea is that these specific skills are skills that can, should and need to be deployed across the U.S. as we increasingly focus on water quality,” THI president Mike Sprague said during a presentation about the project at The Corps Network’s annual conference on Feb. 10.
The Corps Network is a national coalition of 127 corps groups whose members consist primarily of 16– to 25-year-olds. An estimated 27,000 youths participate in such corps programs, working on projects that restore the environment, benefit low-income neighborhoods or aid in disaster relief, for example. Connecting these young members to longer-term employment after they complete their service is part of the Network’s mission.
That’s part of the reason The Corps Network reached out to Trout Headwaters last year about a potential partnership.
“It was appealing to us to look for additional types of certifications [corps members] could gain, particularly in the environmental field, that would signal to employers that they had an advanced or sophisticated array of experience,” said Levi Novey, spokesman for the DC-based Network.
Both partners said they’ve recognized that water quality projects represent a growing sector of the conservation field and an increasingly pressing need in several regions.
The first Civilian Conservation Corps was established during the Great Depression to support an army of workers who would physically improve the country’s landscape. The Corps Network is its modern iteration and provides leadership to individual corps throughout the country.
These local corps are providing services that their communities need while equipping corps members with valuable job skills that will carry them into future careers.
In the Chesapeake Bay region, New York and New Jersey are home to about 20 corps groups. About 10 corps groups are based out of Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia and the District of Columbia, according to the Network’s website, and a handful of them have been involved in projects to improve local water quality.
Local corps leaders are already seeing the potential in a program that could certify these corps members with water restoration skills — the kind that Trout Headwaters and other major employers in the field are after.
Kellie Bolinder, executive director of the DC-based Earth Conservation Corps, said The Corps Network’s partnership with Trout Headwaters presents an exciting opportunity for water-focused corps like hers to receive certification for their work.
“As a group, that could be a potential fit. That’s true green jobs and that’s what we need,” she said.
Trout Headwaters rolled out more details about the new program, first announced in January, at the Network’s conference in early February.
About 50 people representing corps from across the country filled the room to hear more about how they could participate.
Trout Headwaters’ Luke Frazza, who’s based out of Fairfax, VA, told the group that his company is looking for a handful of pilot projects to launch the program. He said they’d like to hear over the next 30 days from corps that have water restoration projects in mind or would like to participate in “beta testing” the system.
Corps leaders from Montana, the Great Lakes and other regions were quick to the podium to express interest, but so were groups from the Chesapeake Bay region.
“We’re hoping we would have an opportunity to take advantage of this,” Jacob Newman with the Montgomery County Conservation Corps, a program of the Latin American Youth Center, said after the presentation.
Newman said his corps often works with other groups in the area when considering larger projects like what may be in store to qualify for this program.
Lina Oliveros, youth program coordinator with the National Park Service’s Chesapeake Bay Office in Annapolis was interested in its prospects, too.
Before announcing how the program would be rolled out — initially through about six pilot projects across the country — THI’s Sprague explained to the group what the certification and training might look like.
A team of people from THI have spent the last 10 months crafting a framework for an “aquatic restoration system” that would train and certify participating corps members while ensuring the ecological value of their work to the local community.
The pilot program will begin with in-classroom training conducted initially by Trout Headwaters staff. Participants will learn about work safety for aquatic environments and how to enhance habitats and stabilize stream banks while preventing soil erosion or removing invasive weeds.
Sprague said this training portion will last about eight hours and could be broken up over several days. It also could eventually be moved online once the initial participants have helped hone the process.
Classroom training will be followed by projects in the field where participants gain on-the-job experience with the support of Trout Headwaters. These projects will be selected in partnership with the local corps, which Sprague said often have better insight into local projects that matter and are receiving strong funding.
While in the field, these corps will have access to Trout Headwaters’ online system and its technical support. They can pull up renderings for similar projects or a database of environmental firms in the region for networking opportunities.
“It’s important to understand that stream, wetland, river restoration — t hese sciences being applied for this purpose today are no more than 20 years old in this application,” Sprague said.
“The industry itself is learning as it goes, so what that demands at a training level is that we constantly bring forward the best tools to enable… a workforce that can support it.”
Sprague also sees this training program as a potential boon for the water restoration industry, one that requires hands-on experience and could pull from a certified workforce.
Not having that workforce has led in the past to restoration projects, often conducted by construction companies with heavy machinery, that have done more damage than good.
“One of the advantages of The Corps Network’s involvement is that we can start to lead the industry a little bit in a direction where the touch is lighter,” Sprague said.
Corps interested in participating in the pilot project can contact Luke Frazza at firstname.lastname@example.org.