25th annual water conservation celebration goes out of this world

Elise Zwicky for Chronicle Media

Students at last year’s Clean Water Celebration learn about aquatic life and the importance of protecting rivers and other water resources. Sponsored by the Sun Foundation, this year’s event kicks off Sunday, April 23, at the Peoria riverfront and continues Monday, April 24, at the Peoria Civic Center. (Photo courtesy of the Sun Foundation)

This year’s 25th annual Clean Water Celebration in Peoria is reaching beyond the planet to emphasize the importance of conserving and restoring water and natural resources.

“Prospecting for Water on the Moon” is the theme of the two-day event, which kicks off this Sunday. The event is organized by the Sun Foundation, a nonprofit arts and science educational organization based in Washburn.

NASA engineer and inventor Jacqueline Quinn will present the keynote lecture Sunday night in Peoria Heights and again on Monday at the Civic Center. Monday’s event is free and open to middle schools, high schools and the general public.

“Our whole mission is for young people to become stewards of our natural resources. We want them to have the knowledge and the skills and to be inspired and to know how directly related it is to their health and the health of their country,” said Joan Root Ericksen, who founded the Sun Foundation with her husband, Robert, in 1973 and is the organization’s development director.

The first Clean Water Celebration was held in 1973 after the Sun Foundation decided water would be a major environmental issue in the future, Ericksen said.

“In 1990 we had in Peoria what we called Water Week, and we had the oceanographer Jean-Michel Cousteau come speak. We also had numerous groups in the Peoria area doing different things in education in regards to water and water conservation, protection, restoration and the proper use of water,” she said.

During that time, the Sun Foundation also developed a curriculum with the help of Karen Zuckerman, a foundation board member and Hollis Grade School science teacher, that was distributed to schools and libraries.

Water Week morphed into the Clean Water Celebration after the Sun Foundation became aware of a Rivers Curriculum project developed by professor Robert Williams at Southern Illinois University, which trained high school students to do water quality studies that could be used by professionals.

“We thought this would be wonderful for our middle grade school students in our community to meet with the high school students who were doing this really profound project,” Ericksen said. “Some of them had actually impacted on their community to improve water quality.”

Robert Williams has since retired and moved to Texas, but Ericksen said he returns to Peoria for the Clean Water Celebration every year. He is also the father of this year’s keynote speaker.

The Clean Water Celebration will kick off at 4 p.m. Sunday, April 23, at the Gateway Building at the Peoria riverfront with a group photo of the event’s alumni. All past participating students, teachers, presenters and planners are invited.

“We’ve had 56,000 students and their teachers come through over the past 25 years,” Ericksen said. For planning purposes, alumni are asked to RSVP via the Sun Foundation’s Facebook page or by emailing the group at info@sunfoundation.org.

A Native American blessing of the river will begin at 4:30 p.m. The public is invited to attend and bring water for the blessing, which will be conducted by Jimmy Lakota and Brian Fox Ellis.

Jacqueline Quinn, payload manager for the NASA Resource Prospector mission to the moon, will present an overview of the mission, which could be launched as early as 2021, at the keynote dinner at 5:30 p.m. Sunday at the Trailside Event Center, 4416 N. Prospect, in Peoria Heights. Cost of the dinner and lecture is $25. There is no cost to attend the lecture without the dinner.  Participants must register online at www.sunfoundation.org.

The lunar mission involves a three-day journey from earth to the moon after which a lander on the lunar surface will deploy a rover carrying special instruments to search for subsurface water, hydrogen and other volatiles.

The Clean Water Celebration will continue from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday, April 24, at the Peoria Civic Center. The event is free for registered classes and offers the keynote presentation as well as musical guests and presentations on green initiatives, recycling and conservation, storytelling and interactive hands-on exhibits.

About 2,100 students had registered to attend as of last week. Ericksen said the Sun Foundation has been raising money to help schools with transportation costs and to pay for renting the Civic Center. The event is free to the public but donations will be accepted.

While the event is meant to be a celebration and a way to inspire students, Ericksen said the subject is especially important now with the current administration’s attack on federal environmental protections.

“If we have the deregulations that are planned, the cancers and the birth defects and the suffering and the deaths that will occur will only increase jobs for the undertakers and for the health officials,” Ericksen said. “It’s so far backwards. It’s like a nightmare.”

The Sun Foundation is asking anyone who’s been inspired by the Clean Water Celebration over the years to consider donating $25 in honor of the 25th year. For more information or to make a donation, visit www.sunfoundation.org.