State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School


On the Road with Kate & Maddy: America Talks about Water

Grand Isle, La., marina.
Grand Isle, La., marina.

By Kate Burrows & Maddy Cohen

THE IDEA: An oral history project documenting regional water issues.

Kate Burrows & Maddy Cohen
Kate Burrows & Maddy Cohen

Before going back to Columbia to attend the Mailman School of Public Health in the fall, we (Kate Burrows & Maddy Cohen, CC’13) decided to put together a summer research project. Both of us are interested in the intersection of the environment and public health, and we wanted to explore a public health issue about which we felt ignorant. Water kept coming up in our conversations, because we felt that while water is a global issue, it often gets overlooked domestically among our peers. As such, we put together a six-week cross-country road trip, along which we are collecting stories about regional water issues.

This oral history project is called “Project JAR.”

We are stopping in areas that are facing water-related issues, and speaking with local residents and experts. All of our conversations are documented and publicized using audio recording. The culmination of the project will be our website (, on which we will provide easily accessible information about the issues we selected, as well as the stories we have collected.

COLLECTING STORIES: The good & the bad

John Wathen
John Wathen

We’ve already met a number of interesting people along our route. Some of these interviews were scheduled in advance.

For example, we met with photographer John Wathen outside of Tuscaloosa, Ala., and discussed his incredible photographic coverage of a train derailment that spilled Bakken crude oil in Alabama. In the full conversation, you can hear him discuss what makes Bakken crude so unstable, and why that is frightening if we continue to transport it by train.

Following that, we were fortunate enough to arrange a meeting with Dr. Jim Cowan of Louisiana State University (to hear about the Mississippi River diversions) who in turn scheduled a number of meetings with other officials and professors in the area. This allowed us to ask tailored questions to the experts we spoke with, all of whom were excited to teach us and share their stories.

James Cowan
James Cowan

In some cases, we had spontaneous conversations in local cafes or bars.  One of the more memorable experiences we’ve had was with local fisherman in Grand Isle, La. We spoke with a few commercial shrimpers who then took us out onto the water to see what the boats look like in operation. For the most part, we’ve found that people are passionate about their water, and are ready to share their stories. This was a somewhat pleasant surprise, as we had been somewhat apprehensive that we wouldn’t be able to enter into conversation.

Of course, not all of our interviews were entirely smooth sailing. In Baton Rouge, La., we met with an unnamed state official who was unable to speak with us about the issue for legal reasons. In Dallas, Texas, very few people wanted to talk about the fracking happening nearby. In these cases, we resolved to document the difficulties we had and work with the interviews we were able to collect.

In other instances, we found that people were more interested in telling us about a different issue. In Grand Isle, the shrimpers were more interested in talking about the Gulf Oil Spill than about the Mississippi River diversions. This is also a powerful discovery; in our eyes, if that is the story they want to tell, that’s the story that we should publish.

There are a few more planned stops, but at the end of the project, we will have a completed website of stories and our thoughts surrounding them, and hopefully we will have connected strangers and opened a dialog for these water issues.

At each turn, it is a humbling experience to meet people and hear their words. In that way, this project became publicly owned as soon as we recorded our first story. Moving forward, we are excited to watch as themes begin to come together and more people get their voice heard.

Kate Burrows and Maddy Cohen graduated from Columbia College in 2013. Burrows majored in sustainable development, with a concentration in history; Cohen majored in environmental biology and concentrated in sustainable development. Both will attend graduate school at the Mailman School of Public Health in the fall.

Look here for more information about the Earth Institute / Columbia undergraduate programs in sustainable development.

Banner featuring a collage of extreme heat images.

Recent record-breaking heat waves have affected communities across the world. The Extreme Heat Workshop will bring together researchers and practitioners to advance the state of knowledge, identify community needs, and develop a framework for evaluating risks with a focus on climate justice. Register by June 15

Notify of

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments