Stella Bowles is packing her bags once again, this time headed for Geneva, N.Y., to take part in the Environmental Studies Summer Youth Institute, an exclusive college-level summer program at which she will be the only Canadian.
When we meet up at the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic — where she’s getting a sneak peek at a new exhibit she’s featured in — the 15-year-old is just back from accepting first prize at the Ontario Science Centre’s Youth Innovation awards in Toronto. Earlier this year, she introduced the prime minister on stage at an event in Antigonish.
It’s been a bit of a whirlwind, but she’s taking it all in stride.
“I love telling other people my story, especially younger people,” Bowles said.
She’s likely gotten used to doing that. Bowles became almost a household name in Nova Scotia four years ago, when she began a science fair project that would create waves of change in her hometown.
As an 11-year-old, she started asking questions about why no one in Bridgewater, N.S., could swim in the LaHave River. Then she started testing the water in her kitchen, and learned the levels of fecal bacteria were far above what was safe.
At 70 parts per 100 millilitres, the water isn’t safe to swim in. At 170/100 ml, it’s not even safe to touch. According to her Facebook page, Bowles’s latest round of testing in early June found levels ranging between 63 at the LaHave River Yacht Club to 830 at Shipyards Landing in Bridgewater.
Still, she’s hopeful things are changing.
“When we started we had 600 straight pipes in our river and there are almost 100 switched over, so they’re planning by 2023 to have all of them switched to septic tanks,” she said.
WATCH: Action for Nature Eco-Hero Stella Bowles
That’s the result of a $15.7-million cleanup plan funded by all three levels of government. The aim is to replicate those results by empowering other young people to do their own testing of waterways elsewhere in Nova Scotia. Bowles is funding that with money she’s won through various prizes over the years.
“I put it towards making these kits up, providing the youth with them. I train them how to test the water, they get a year’s worth of supplies and they can send me the results to post on Facebook,” she said.
Bowles is part of a generation of young activists who are speaking up about climate change and environmental issues and demanding action from governments. Students across the country and around the world took to the streets in climate strikes this year, led by Swedish teen Greta Thunberg.
The 16-year-old has made headlines for her speeches to international leaders, calling on them to have the courage to act on climate change before it is too late. She does not mince words.
Bowles counts Thunberg as an inspiration, “another woman in power” fighting for the future.
“It’s amazing to see what other youth are doing with their spare time, and just it makes you feel so good about the next generation knowing that already we’ve been stepping up our game,” Bowles said.
WATCH: N.S. student’s science project prompts vow to clean up ‘environmental disaster’
University of Toronto political science professor Jessica Green agrees it’s encouraging to see young people mobilizing. She teaches environmental policy and says youths have a right to be angry about what adults are doing — and not doing — about climate change and environmental issues.
“I think this is resonating with young people because they’re being passed over,” Green said. “I mean they don’t have the vote, they’re disenfranchised, people don’t listen to them because they think they’re kids.”
Bowles has never accepted the idea that she should be limited by her age. She wants a better future for her hometown.
“I really, really want to swim in my river,” she said. “I mean, that was the goal when I was 11 and I think that’s a goal now.”