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One Year OutSarah Muskin ’16AmeriCorps Volunteer

Shortly after she enrolled at Vassar five years ago, Sarah Muskin ’16 decided to major in Environmental Studies. “I was kind of leaning in that direction, and when I got there, I was impressed by the interdisciplinary nature of the program,” Muskin says. Since she graduated last spring, Muskin has been putting that interdisciplinary experience to good use.

Sarah Muskin ’16 (center) with members of the Alpine Watershed GroupPhoto: Courtesy of AmeriCorps

As an AmeriCorps volunteer, she is helping one small agency monitor the water quality of streams in eastern California, and she’s overseeing environmental education programs for another agency just across the Nevada border. “One day, I’m doing chemical analysis of a stream for the Alpine (CA) Watershed Group,” Muskin says. “The next day, I’m working for a group called River Wranglers, delivering trout eggs to school children in Carson City, NV.”

What binds these two jobs together, Muskin says, is an ongoing effort by citizens in the entire Sierra Nevada Watershed to improve and conserve the water supply. Those engaged in that effort face some daunting challenges. One portion of the Carson River has been polluted by sulfur from nearby mines, and another has a high concentration of mercury emanating from several mills. Both sites have been designated for cleanup through the federal Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Superfund program. “Some of the watershed is not in good shape,” Muskin says. “The runoff from the sulfur mine has been going on for more than 30 years, and we’re in the midst of major remediation.”

Collecting samples to test for turbidity in the West Fork of the Carson RiverPhoto: Ben Muskin

Those tasked with managing the watershed faced additional issues this winter when the region was besieged by near-record amounts of snow and rain, triggering landslides and avalanches. “For someone who comes from back East (Muskin was born and raised in New Haven, CT), all of this was new to me,” she says.

Despite the challenges, Muskin says her stint as an AmeriCorps volunteer has contained plenty of rewards. As an environmental educator, she is helping both elementary and high school students learn more about the importance of their rivers and streams. “Some of the students hatched those trout eggs, raised the fish, and delivered them back into the river,” she says. “Some of these kids had never seen the river, and it’s been fun to watch them learn what it means to be stewards of the land.”

Muskin says she is heartened by the diversity of those who are working to clean up and protect the watershed. “We have a volunteer group in Alpine (CA) County that includes fly fishermen and women, hunters, ranchers and retired investment bankers from the Bay Area who have moved here,” she says, “and they all share this common purpose.”

As Congress contemplates steep budget cuts for both the AmeriCorps program and the EPA, Muskin says she’s worried about what will happen to the watershed after she and other AmeriCorps volunteers leave the area next fall. “It would be hard for these tiny non-profit agencies to survive without AmeriCorps,” she says.

Muskin says she’s using a lot of what she learned in college in her first job after graduation. “Working with water issues, you learn how interrelated everything is, and that’s something we were taught at Vassar,” she says. “Policy makers and scientists are working with volunteers from different backgrounds, and what they all have in common is they care about the environment here.”

Muskin working with youngsters in Carson City, NVPhoto: Courtesy of AmeriCorp

Muskin says she hasn’t decided exactly what she’ll do when she leaves AmeriCorps, but she says the experience has solidified her interest in water-related issues. “I had the opportunity to meet other young professionals at the Sierra Nevada Alliance who were doing some of the same work in environmental education and monitoring streams, and it was cool to know I was part of a larger conservation network,” she says. “My next decision is whether to pursue it from the management side or to remain out in the field.”