(This is part of a series of stories we are doing to commemorate Rural Action’s 30th anniversary. If you would like to be interviewed or to provide an essay on your Rural Action experiences, please contact us.)
Jen Bowman still remembers the first time she saw an orange creek.
She was volunteering with a “small but mighty” group in the late 1990s that met Saturday mornings to work on environmental projects. On this particular Saturday, they were doing a litter pickup in Buchtel.
“I never saw orange water before,” Jen recalls. “I thought it must be from rusty metal, maybe car parts, that were in the water.”
She started to ask questions and discovered that orange water was caused by acid mine drainage. She kept asking questions and learned about the impact pre-regulation coal mining had on the local environment and watersheds.
Her work as a volunteer eventually led Jen to spend three years as a watershed coordinator with Rural Action in the early 2000s. She is now the director of environmental programs at Ohio University’s Voinovich School, where she gets to see how today’s students react to the orange water and other legacy impacts from coal mining.
“When we take students out into the field, they still have that ‘oh-my-gosh’ feeling when they see acid mine drainage,” she says. “This should have been dealt with long ago. How can it still be like this?”
Jen arrived in Athens from Cincinnati in 1993 to study at OU. “I was always very passionate about the environment and wanting to help with the state we were in in terms of saving the world,” she says. That prompted her to look for volunteer opportunities during her sophomore year. She found one State Route Ohio 550, but lacking a car, she asked a friend to drive her to the field where Ohio Stream Restore Corps members (now Appalachian Ohio Restore Corps) were working on a stream bank stabilization project.
“They’re doing something I want to do,” she thought as she watched people wearing waders and covered in mud “poking trees into the creek bank.”
After spending the day with them, she realized she didn’t have a ride home. That’s when Alan Reese, a VISTA volunteer with Rural Action who worked to get OU students more involved in the community, offered her a ride back to Athens and told her about the group of volunteers who met every week at Baker Center to plan field projects.
“The more dirt and mud I’d come home with, the more I’d feel that I was making a difference,” Jen says.
Jen’s adviser in her environmental geology coursework was Mary Stoertz, an associate professor at OU. Mary steered Jen toward water quality and hydrology, including water sampling. “Your enthusiasm is what you have going for you,” Mary told Jen, and then recommended her for her first job, a summer position working in Raccoon Creek, where 100 sites were being sampled, generating a lot of data, and questions.
Prompted by Mitch Farley, then an employee of the Ohio Department of Natural Resources Division of Mineral Resources Management, to think critically about the data. “What can we learn from data? What do the trends tell us? Where are the impacts coming from?”
“I went from idealistic student to pragmatic person working to save the world,” Jen says.
Jen applied to be a VISTA member with Rural Action’s Monday Creek team, but she didn’t get the position, possibly because they were looking for someone to do office work and Jen wanted to be in the field. But fate brought her to Rural Action anyway.
“Do you want a field position with us at Monday Creek,” she asked, having remembered Jen from that VISTA interview.
Jen spent the year between her undergraduate and graduate work with the Monday Creek group, working out of the Forest Service building that was on Columbus Road at the time. She and Mary Ann wrote an acid mine drainage abatement plan at the end of that year and Jen went to graduate school, where her thesis work helped lead to the placing of a doser at Carbondale in the Raccoon Creek Watershed.
During graduate school, Jen also started doing volunteer work providing guidance on water quality and sampling to a community group Jim Hart was pulling together to clean the Sunday Creek Watershed.
When Jen graduated, she and a friend hiked the Appalachian Trail. But Jen knew Jim Hart was about to make a decision on hiring a watershed coordinator for Sunday Creek, so she’d stop to call Jim each time they came to a trail town. It took a few more months for a decision, but in January 2001, Jen started as the watershed coordinator of the Sunday Creek Watershed Group.
They set up an office at 69 High Street in Glouster in a former tattoo parlor, and their upstairs neighbor and landlord was the Moose Lodge.
“We rented it for $300 a month,” Jen remembers. “The Moose Lodge members would help us when we held spaghetti dinners. They’d let us use their space for that. After work, we’d go upstairs, have a few beers and play shuffleboard. None of us were from Glouster so that was a great way to strengthen community ties.”
“For Sunday Creek, we had two gorillas in the room,” Jen says. “The Corning discharge and the Millfield discharge. When I was coordinator, I said these are the big and nasties that need something we don’t have in our toolbox right now.”
Jen invited some smart people to a meeting to think creatively about the problem. Guy Riefler of OU’s Department of Civil Engineering was among those smart people.
These problems won’t be solved overnight, Jen thought at the time. And it didn’t happen overnight. But the seeds were planted, and Guy spent time thinking about the issue, eventually settling on the idea of extracting pigment from the iron oxide that was tainting the water. Pigment is a marketable product that can be used to color paints and other materials, so the idea had the potential to create an economic asset from an environmental liability, cleaning the water of Sunday Creek in the process.
Today, Rural Action has a social enterprise, True Pigments, that’s building a facility in Truetown at the Millfield discharge that will extract that pigment at scale and clean the water.
“We’ve always had a really good collaborative model,” Jen says, citing the involvement of stakeholders in the community, at OU, at the state Department of Natural Resources, the Ohio EPA, and other agencies.
After serving as watershed coordinator for three years, Jen moved to OU to work as a project manager at Institute for Local Government Administration and Rural Development (now called the Voinovich School School for Leadership and Public Service) and has been at OU ever since. “It was OU and Rural Action that shaped my career,” she says. “Sometimes one, then the other, then both.”
Looking back, Jen says dealing with acid mine drainage was easier in some respects than addressing riparian restorations, where multiple private landowners need to be addressed to tackle eroding stream banks and practices that minimize the impact of agriculture on watersheds.
Jen sees hints of her younger self in the students she works with at OU. “In general our students are passionate and want to make a difference,” she says. “They are more disciplined and focused on being socially responsible and equitable. They look at things through more of a justice lens than we did at that age.”
“I probably stay more optimistic than if I’d worked with people in their 40s all the time,” Jen says. “I’m always seeing hopefulness, inspiration and the drive to make change. They’re very interested in making change.”
“If you asked me what I wanted to be when I was a kid, I would have said a teacher,” Jen says. “I never lost that. I want to teach, I want to mentor, I want to inform students. I feel like I have the perfect job. I provide students with opportunities to gain professional experience, and I help them learn how to collect and analyze data, write reports, all those things they need to learn.”
Jen and her husband, Jeremy, have land west of Athens where they’re planting gardens, and they have two sons, ages 14 and 17. And her husband? He’s the boyfriend she was going to visit on that fateful day when Mary Ann Borch pulled over and offered her work with Rural Action.