Stella Bowles was 11 years old when she first donned her rubber boots to test for water contamination in the LaHave River, which runs beside her home on the South Shore of Nova Scotia, Canada.
“I wanted to swim in the water, and Mom’s always said no,” Bowles told CityLab. But in 2015, after hearing her mom, Andrea Conrad, say that their neighbors were using illegal straight pipes, Bowles asked her what a straight pipe was. “She explained it’s a pipe from a home’s toilet into a waterway, with no filtration whatsoever,” Bowles recalled. “I had so many questions.”
Such as: If the river has poop in it from nearby houses, how many houses?
Bowles collected and analyzed water samples, running them through a filter funnel and putting the filter on an enterococci testing card. After 36 hours in an incubator, the colonies of fecal bacteria on the card turn blue. Bowles counted the blue dots. The results revealed levels of fecal contamination above Canada’s federal standards for swimming or boating. Among those sailing the LaHave waters at the time was Bowles’ little brother.
Conrad chimed in, “You were mortified.”
“I was,” Bowles answered. “So that’s the long beginning of how this all happened.” It turned out that an estimated 600 straight pipes were sending raw sewage right into the river.
Bowles won a silver medal in a Canada-wide science fair in 2017 for her project on the contamination, and she came in first place for her age group in Action for Nature’s 2018 International Eco-Hero Youth Awards. In the summer of 2017, she helped convince the Canadian government to commit to replacing all straight pipes to the LaHave River with septic tanks by 2023 at a cost of more than $15 million (Canadian), split three ways among the federal, provincial, and municipal governments. Officials plan to install between 50 and 100 septic systems in 2018, and up to 100 systems annually through 2023.
Not long after her discovery, Bowles put up a large sign on the nearby wharf cautioning that the river was contaminated with fecal bacteria. She also wanted to create a Facebook page to alert members of the community, an idea her mother later agreed to as Bowles continued to see people in the river.
“People don’t necessarily take to that well, when you’re telling them to get out of the water,” said Conrad. “So that’s why we decided as a family, we’ll do the Facebook page and see what happens, and go from there.”
Bowles and her mom thought the page might inform 100 people that the river was unsafe, but they reached thousands within days.
“Everybody on the page was commenting, ‘This is disgusting. Are you serious? This is really happening?’ The comments were just going and going and going,” said Bowles. “It was definitely a huge talk in the town.”
“There was pushback, but not towards Stella,” added Conrad. “It was more towards the government and the lack of enforcement. And people who had straight pipes were obviously staying pretty quiet, right? Because they didn’t want to draw attention to the fact they had straight pipes.”
Bowles learned how to test the water from David Maxwell, a retired physician and former university professor who found out about the many straight pipes along the LaHave River after he moved to the area. The municipal district of Lunenburg (population just shy of 25,000) had conducted a survey in which 800 households self-reported using straight pipes, and Maxwell discovered that the house he bought was one of them.
“I proceeded then to get a septic system installed, because this horrified me as a physician,” said Maxwell. “I thought, ‘This is completely unacceptable.’”
He also realized that LaHave water was not being tested, and sprang into action. “I rounded up a group of fellow citizens to collect water samples, and turned my kitchen into a microbiology lab and generated counts of bacteria for a two-year period.”
Despite him sending the results to the government and publishing them as widely as he could, the findings failed to change the limited enforcement of the law barring straight pipes.
“People didn’t take to [Maxwell],” Bowles said, “but I think the fact that I was an 11-year-old kid saying, ‘This is wrong’—I was kind of shaming the adults, saying, ‘Are you serious? Aren’t you supposed to be taking care of our community?’—it kind of pushed them into a corner.”
According to the municipal district’s mayor, Carolyn Bolivar-Getson, the Department of Environment (a provincial body) handled regulation of illegal straight pipes using a complaint-driven system. Someone would have to report their neighbor to the department for it to take action, and considering the number of households with straight pipes, there was little enforcement.
Bolivar-Getson said, “I really think the turning point was Stella Bowles—an 11-year-old’s science project.”
Maxwell noted the difference between his campaign and Bowles’s. “The essence of it is, how does the electorate influence their government? How do the people make their government do the right thing? … As an adult, I got nowhere. And as a kid with skills in social media and her own dismay at the failure of the adults, Stella really mobilized the political machine, because you can’t say no to a kid.”
Now 14, Bowles has written a book with Anne Laurel Carter entitled My River that’s set for publication this September. She is distributing water-testing kits to other young people in Nova Scotia, paid for through grants and awards she received, and training them in how to test their local waterways.
“I want to show kids that science isn’t just a textbook like at school,” she said.