The Potomac Highlands Watershed School 

Stream Cleaner Environmental Forum

Native Guides

Let The River Run Silver

Using Science to Help Restore Your Watershed & Improve Your Community!

By Sandy Burk, Biologist and Author


  Students from schools throughout the Potomac River watershed helped restore a threatened Potomac River fish, the ecologically important American shad, and are now cleaning up streams and rivers in their own neighborhoods- all while performing important community service and earning credit for school too.  Many of these students joined me to document their efforts in my award winning book Let the River Run Silver Again!


This book tells the exciting story of how students like you became stakeholders in solving some of the problems of the second largest river in the Chesapeake Bay watershed- the Potomac.  Student scientists identified problems that they could help solve, secured resources to do their projects, did them, and then got their story out into the media via newspaper, TV and radio and the book Let the River Run Silver Again!  Student stars of the story earned community service or service-learning hours (SSL) toward graduation from Marylandís Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS) for their completed environmental projects.


The Story

     In the mid 1990ís, students learned that the American shad (Alosa sapidissima) an anadromous fish that is a critical part of the ecosystems of many East Coast rivers and bays including the Potomac River and Chesapeake Bay, was in serious trouble. By the 1980ís, shad numbers in the Potomac and other rivers were decimated due to overfishing, pollution and migration-blocking dams. Animals such as bald eagles, striped bass and bottlenose dolphin depend on this fish for food, as well as people.  Students and their teachers decided to get involved with a shad restoration effort coordinated by the Interstate Commission on the Potomac River Basin (ICPRB) to help bring the fish back.

Students involved in the Potomac shad restoration project helped raise and restock American shad into the river. They researched and identified the Little Falls dam as being the greatest threat in the river to the shad that they were trying to restore. It would block fish that they had raised from returning up the Potomac River to their traditional spawning grounds where they had been released by the students. The book tells how students got politically active to solve this problem by writing letters to and visiting their County Council and Maryland State Senators to petition them to get a fishway installed into the dam so that the fish could get through it. Due in part to their efforts, the fishway was installed.


To honor the studentís role in this important event, student Ben Symons was invited to represent the students and join his United States Senator, Congresswoman, the Secretary of Interior and the head of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in the opening ceremony of the Little Falls fish ladder. Shad did use the fish ladder to return up river to the Great Falls of the Potomac. Some of the returning shad were identified as the fish that were raised and released! Students had helped save a threatened animal.


While participating in the shad project, students identified nonpoint source pollution such as sediment from erosion due to stormwater runoff from their neighborhood as the primary remaining threat to their Little Falls stream and the returning shad.  Working with the Potomac Conservancy and their county parks department, students and their teachers planned and implemented best management practices such as installing a raingarden and rain barrel at their school and planting trees along their stream to help stop this type of pollution.


The three students who helped raise shad in elementary school, and are featured in the book- Ben, Julia, and Nick- went on to design their own projects to help improve the environmental health of their watershed for the returning shad and other river life in high school. These projects qualified for community service or MCPS service-learning hours towards graduation.


Ben worked with his local garden club and helped plan and implement three years of trash pickups along the stream where he had planted trees with his class.  Ben and his neighbors removed leaking motor oil containers, bags of fertilizer, bottles, cans, bags, tires and glass among other things, helping improve the water quality of his schoolís Little Falls stream further.


Now a senior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School, Ben recently completed a special senior project comparing animal life to oxygen levels found in Little Falls stream. He worked with his former elementary school teacher to design the project. Monitoring water quality is an important tool to see if best management practices such as raingardens and doing plantings to stop erosion installed along a stream are working. Benís data will be included in the overall study of the streamís health to see if it is improving.


Julia helped start an ecology club when she got to Walt Whitman High School. For a club project, Julia raised and planted river grasses in the Potomac with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. River grasses help improve the water quality of rivers by filtering nonpoint source pollution such as sediment and nutrients and increasing habitat for juvenile fish, including shad. She also revisited her elementary school and talked to the students about raising grasses.


Nick worked with the local Audubon Naturalist Society to remove invasive plants in the Rock Creek watershed, a tributary of the Potomac. He also worked at the Societyís bookstore learning about the business side of environmental restoration to earn his MCPS service-learning hours.


When the American shad first returned through the fish ladder to Great Falls, Nick and Julia were in high school doing their own projects. They both returned to work with their former elementary school to release the seventh generation of student-raised shad at Great Falls National Park. Nick has since gone on to study environmental projects as a civil engineering student in college.


What You Can Do

This story illustrates how high school students like you can team up with local environmental non-profit and government organizations to help restore damaged parts of a watershed. Students from Poolesville High School worked with the Izaak Walton League, Potomac Conservancy and National Park Service to plant trees and help rebuild wetlands in areas of the C&O Canal National Historical Park devastated by a great flood.  Installing wetlands and native trees are important best management practices for reducing stormwater runoff to the Chesapeake Bay. The National Park Service credited the students as a major help in rebuilding the park.

         Starting in 2000, in anticipation of a fish ladder being installed in a dam in the Rock Creek tributary of the Potomac River, high school students joined ICPRB and environmental groups to raise and release thousands of river herring above the dam. They also helped carry herring around the dam in buckets for the past six years. The fish ladder at Pierce Mill just opened this winter.

Students are now joining the Alice Ferguson Foundationís Bridging the Watershed program to do watershed projects with the National Park Service that include monitoring the effects of restoration efforts throughout the Potomac River basin.  This spring students will be monitoring the Rock Creek tributary of the Potomac to see if habitat enhancements made in the stream will allow river herring to return to the upper creek for the first time in over 200 years!


State and county governments are incredibly important resources for identifying and designing projects. Schools featured here have worked with Marylandís Department of Natural Resources Aquatic Resources Education (A.R.E.) program for years. State staff and trained volunteers come to the schools to teach about watersheds and help design and fund innovative projects such as removing invasive plants and raising horseshoe crabs.

One of the most important things that you can do with an environmental project is to document it and get your message out to the community via TV, newspaper, internet or book form. Let the River Run Silver Again! is a great example of how students helped get their success story told in award-winning book form.


All of the student restoration activities featured in Let the River Run Silver Again!, from raising fish and planting trees to picking up trash, can allow you to improve the health of your watershed and provide service to your community while earning credit towards graduation. The book also gives important resources such as groups to work with and funding ideas for projects.


Let the River Run Silver Again!, which won a 2006 Green Earth Book Award and 2005 Conservation Book of the Year award, and is available online through or Amazon, and by ordering through local bookstores.

 -For more information on the continuing shad restoration program, contact Jim Cummins at the Interstate Commission on the Potomac River Basin at



Profile of Sandy Burk: Sandy was born in Washington DC on the banks of the Potomac River. She grew up canoeing and fishing the Potomac from West Virginia to the Chesapeake Bay. Her interest in fish led her to get a Masterís degree in marine biology from University of North Carolina. She currently works to educate people about what they can do to help restore our waters.  Her first book, Let the River Run Silver Again! was published in 2005. She lives in Chevy Chase, MD.

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