How a pageant dream powered my water quality passion
by Guest Blogger on Monday, April 10, 2023
When I was 8 years old, I asked for my parents’ permission to compete in the ‘Little Miss’ category of the Miss Iowa Scholarship Organization. They agreed despite their confusion at my interest as I was an incredibly bashful child. At the time, I had no idea what I was getting myself into. I remember being scared to death and practically running off the stage for almost every phase of competition. As you can imagine, I did not walk away with the title.
However, what I walked away with was a newfound love for personal development and community service. Year after year, I have continued to compete in local and state competitions as ‘Little,’ ‘Junior,’ ‘Teen,’ and now ‘Miss.’ Through these competitions, I continue to grow in more ways than one. From learning how to effectively communicate to growing leadership skills to developing my own community service initiative, I could not be more grateful for the Miss Iowa Scholarship Organization and the Miss America Opportunity.
When it came to developing my community service initiative, I knew I wanted it to be something along the lines of protecting the planet because: 1) I have always felt a deep connection to Earth; 2) I know the planet needs our help; and 3) I was already doing my part to protect it in my daily life.
I began to brainstorm different avenues under this large umbrella of possibilities. I thought about focusing on plastic pollution or climate change, until I realized where my passion truly laid: Water. I thought, ‘duh! I have been overthinking this entirely. My initiative HAS to focus on water quality.’
Ever since my 6th grade field trip to the Shedd Aquarium, I knew I was going to become a marine biologist. You may be thinking “Really? You are from Iowa but want to be a marine biologist? There aren’t any oceans here.” You’re right. There aren’t any oceans here, but did you know that even land-locked states impact and are impacted by the ocean? Regardless of whether or not that is what you were thinking while reading this, all of these thoughts popped into my head during this process. I started researching ways Iowa impacts our oceans, and discovered a multitude of water quality issues not only in Iowa, but in our nation and in the world. And then BAM! “Watersheds: Think Global, Act Local” was born.
I created the "Watersheds: Think Global, Act Local" program with a dream to provide all living things with adequate water quality. My initial focus is to improve Iowa's water quality through education and advocacy efforts along with empowering others by emphasizing the power individuals hold. If each individual were to keep the entire globe in mind when making decisions locally, the world would look a lot different because when several individuals take action, it adds up. Like Eduardo Galeono said, “Many small people, in small places, doing small things can change the world.” I think watersheds are a great example of this, which is one reason I focus on protecting them.
A watershed is the land area that drains to a common body of water. Everything that is occurring in the land area of a watershed makes its way down to one common waterbody. So, picture an umbrella sitting upside down. Imagine it’s raining down on this umbrella. The water runs down the sides of the umbrella all the way into the middle. It starts to create a puddle. Now imagine you took food dye and placed a couple of drops on the sides of the umbrella. That puddle is changing color, right? That is what happens in our watersheds.
Watersheds are fundamental to improving water quality because every point on Earth is a part of a watershed. Because we all live in a watershed, anyone can improve public health and water quality around the globe by doing their part locally. We are ALL connected so remember to think GLOBAL and act LOCAL.
While non-point source pollution from agricultural runoff is likely the biggest threat to water quality in Iowa, there are several small changes anyone can make to improve water quality. These could be simply reducing your waste by using reusable products, cleaning pet waste, participating in a clean-up, or writing to your representatives.
Since my Miss Scott County crowning moment in late August, I have completed well over 300 hours of service to improve the well-being of all Iowans and the environment as a whole. Being Miss Scott County has granted me some amazing opportunities that I truly could not be more grateful for. I have been able to reach a wide range of audiences through community outreach activities like speaking on television shows, podcasts, newspapers, and blogs just like this one!
The vast majority of my outreach efforts over the past several months have included giving speeches at events, visiting schools, assisting and volunteering at various educational events, and through social media. I created a curriculum for students to keep them engaged and excited about watershed conservation, which I bring to schools and other community events. My plan is to eventually bring this curriculum into all schools across Iowa because acknowledging the problem and importance of water quality is the first step in improving it!
Another large part of my work is focused on reducing waste by getting my hands dirty through environmental cleanups. Whether I have joined or organized the cleanups, these are my favorite events to participate in. They are huge eye-openers to the massive amount of waste that is produced by human civilization. Last year, over my spring break I joined Living Lands & Waters in Memphis, TN to clean up McKellar Lake. Our group was only 12 people, yet we still managed to collect over 530 bags of trash in four days of work!
Another way I have worked to reduce waste is through an ongoing can collection fundraiser. The funds raised from this have been put towards Miss Iowa scholarships and various water quality efforts. I also collect plastic grocery bags in which I use to knit sleeping mats for the homeless. Through my partnership with the Iowa Environmental Council, we organized a trivia night fundraiser that raised $538 for IEC’s water quality efforts!
As a soon-to-be graduate from the University of Northern Iowa, I am also heavily involved at school. In May, I will be graduating with a Bachelor of Science degree in Environmental Sciences - Life Science Emphasis and two minors - Earth Science and Music. I am also the current president of the nationally recognized earth and environmental science honor society, Sigma Gamma Epsilon - Gamma Sigma chapter. We have a great group of environmentalists in our chapter, and have organized several service projects and activities to improve our UNI community.
Last year, I was provided the opportunity to study abroad in the Galapagos Islands as well. I used this experience to research plastic pollution in Ecuador to learn more about where the plastic comes from and what regulations Ecuador has put in place. Even with several single-use plastic bans, I was shocked to find several pieces of plastic while snorkeling off of the coasts of the islands. Through this experience and research, I found that a vast majority of the plastic pollution there comes from elsewhere – most of it makes its way there via ocean currents!
Throughout my senior year, I have also been working on my undergraduate research project. My project focuses on the water quality of five different sites on the Mississippi River. I tested and analyzed my collected samples for nutrient levels and other factors like Total Suspended Solids and Turbidity across the course of a month. This information will be uploaded to public databases to keep the public aware of what is occurring in the Mississippi River, which provides 20 million people with drinking water.
My community service initiative is truly my life. I dedicate every single day towards furthering my initiative, expanding my knowledge, reaching more people, and finding ways to bring national attention to the water quality crisis. "Watersheds: Think Global, Act Local" isn’t just a requirement for competing in scholarship competitions. It is my life. It is my future. It is our now. We have to do something because the actions we take right now are what defines the future of our world. Adequate water quality is a human right, and it is our duty to protect it for generations to come.
This Earth Month, I encourage you all to start taking action! There’s no better time to start than the present. In fact, my cleanup on Earth Day - April 22nd - would be a great start! You can also sign up for this June 17th cleanup I organized with the Partners of Scott County Watersheds! I am in the process of publishing a coloring book to raise awareness and funding, as well as providing educational resources for people of all ages. I am also finalizing the last editing touches for my new podcast that will be released this month! The first episode of “Think Global, Act Local the Podcast” will be posted on my social media.
If you would like to follow my journey to the Miss Iowa stage and my watershed work, you can find all of my social media accounts here: tinyurl.com/realbrittanycostello, along with several other links that may be of interest! I have some really exciting events planned for this year and I cannot wait to share them all with you!
- clean water
- water quality