Flo: The Watershed Project


Team members:

* Kathleen Ruiz, Ph.D. abd, Associate Professor of Integrated Arts, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute: Project Designer, Director, Producer ruiz@rpi.edu
* Student Design Team Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute: Evan Minto, Beth Werbaneth, Colin Neville, Beth Towns, Rosa Tung, Randy Sabella, Anthony Szymczyk, Gabriella Ciavardoni, Dan Hawkins, & Evan Gonzales

* Kate Van Baren, 8th grade science teacher Onteora Middle School 4166 New York 28  Boiceville, NY 12412  (Watershed partner school)
* Amber Bennett, 8th grade science teacher NYC MS x551 The Urban Assembly Bronx Academy of Letters, 339 Morris Avenue New York, NY 10451  (N.Y.C. partner school)
* Katie Palm, Education Director, The Catskill Center for Conservation and Development: Environmental Education Consultant
* Kerissa Fuccillo, Ph.D. abd Scientist and Director of Education & Research, The Ashokan Center: Bioswale Science Consultant
* Elliot Schneiderman, Ph.D., Senior Research Scientist, NYC Environmental Protection: Watershed Science Modeling Consultant


Water is necessary for existence itself. Climate change, however presents us with very significant, health, safety, social, economic and cultural challenges that are far-reaching and threaten the future of our watersheds.  Flo: The Watershed Project is an artistic, scientific and educational game simulation project about the vital importance of water, specifically in the New York City West of Hudson Watershed and the need for new sustainable practices, stewardship and conservation to avoid the causes of flooding and the impacts of climate change. This unfiltered watershed, which ensures the very life of New York City, is located in the six reservoirs in the Catskill Mountain/Delaware River Region of New York State and supplies over 90% of the 1.3 billion gallons of water consumed daily by 9 million its residents.


By communicating with young people in their "native digital" language, the project offers a rare opportunity to create a unique bridge between the digital and natural worlds. The game is played from first person water point of view using the Kinect motion sensing input device to impart the visceral feeling of being first person water. (The on-line version will use simple mouse and keyboard commands.) Flo’s life as water is traced from “birth” in the rain over the mountains as one falls to earth like a raindrop. Then one moves through the saturated soil into high gradient streams, stream riffles, past native riparian buffers,  ducking through and around streambeds, branching throughout the system of cascading creeks, rivers, tributaries and then into reservoirs, through tunnels and aqueducts, and onwards to become drinking water in New York City.


These waterway scenarios, based on watershed geographical data, will be the various “levels” of the game. One must avoid or correct the dangers that Flo has on the journey through a series of mini-games that enable the Flo journey to continue. These include:

1. Reducing sediment and turbidity: addressing erosion and associated water quality impacts by stream management/rehab projects and the use of various techniques including riparian plantings and encouraging and educating people to avoid building in flood plains

2. Altering conditions of development impacts: correcting adverse conditions from asphalt road oils, salt and septic waste through wiser town planning, good septic practices, proper storage of salt, bio swales to help filter asphalt road oils from parking lots and roadways and reducing impervious cover by designing to traffic density, minimizing roadway length & widths, reducing sidewalk widths, cul de sacs, and the footprint of parking areas, sharing driveways and creating hydrologically functional lots. Managing impact by the following: conservation of natural areas, creating vegetated buffers, filter strip and riparian reforestation, vegetated open channel, tree planting, rooftop flow disconnection, stream daylighting, rain gardens, green roofs, storm water planters, rain tank/cisterns, and using permeable paving.[1]

3. Implementing storm water control systems: for new construction or retrofit projects to avoid the impacts by  preserving natural features such protecting undisturbed areas, buffers, reduction of clearing and grading, locating sites in less sensitive areas, and soil restoration.

4. Reducing farm pollutants: such as chemical fertilizers, cattle & cow waste by moving cows away from streams and into areas where fresh water troughs are available for them to drink from, utilizing natural organic fertilizers instead of chemical fertilizers and encouraging organic farming by eliminating antibiotics and chemicals on animals food,  feeding livestock healthy, natural diets that have no animal remains, and using waste for fertilizer with proper methods of composting with care to temperature, and composting for several years before selling.

5. Encouraging positive forestry practice: with no clear cutting and good selective forest management plans determining when and how much timber should be cut at a time, and developing deer management plans to protect forest understory and regrowth.

6. Preventing pharmaceutical and personal care products (PPCPs) pollution: by bringing old medications to community drop off centers, and not flushing or washing pills into the water supply, using only needed medications and products that are more naturally made.

7. Reducing heat pollution by planting vegetation around streams to keep them cool and planting vegetation in cities to slow the runoff of water into streams, permitting the water to percolate slowly through soil.


Sustainable and ecofriendly practices which will be incorporated throughout the game and include:

* Alternate forms of energy such as wind, solar, hydro, and geothermal heating/cooling

* Transportation alternatives such as electric, hybrid cars, bikes, walking, public transportation, and emerging new ideas such as nitrogen cars

* New forms of clustered housing and villages

* Better agricultural practices and food production


To foster Flo’s health and safety on her journey, the player must ensure, through their choices that healthy environmental conditions exist. To complete the highest quest, one must go out into the field and upload “real world” water testing results (both observational and chemical) in addition to artistic observations and impressions in the form of music, art, photography, or poetry.

A unique alliance of university students from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute will design, create, and program the project and work with input from middle school students from the upstate watershed source area and from New York City. The project will not only educate scientifically, but it also aims to activate empathy about the importance of fresh, clean water and the need for all to work together to protect this valuable resource to ensure the health and sustainability of New York City and the upstate source areas and towns. We are partnering with a number of scientists and environmental groups, The Catskill Center for Conservation & Development, and The Ashokan Center where, if additional funding permits, we will all meet for a two day media event with field work in the form of scientific stream health observations and water testing, artistic impressions and expressions, the premier of Flo: The Watershed Game and Fieldwork Project, and sharing our experiences about the role of water in our lives.


A web portal will be created with information about The Watershed Game and Fieldwork Project, including the downloadable version of the game, information about water testing, climate change, maps of the WOH watershed area, links to other relevant websites (such as USGS water monitoring sites, DEP website, etc.), and an upload area for the visual and audio database of water quality testing results, field observations, and artistic reflections and actions. Other schools, community and environmental groups will be able to participate in and contribute to the project.


This project is made possible with funds from the Catskill Watershed Corporation in partnership with the New York City Department of Environmental Protection. For more information please email: ruiz@rpi.edu


[1] “Protecting New York’s Natural Resources through the Phase II SPDES Program,” NYS Department of Environmental Conservation, Division of Water NYS Department of Environmental Conservation, Division of Water, 4/8/2011
http://www.cwconline.org/programs/strm_wtr/nysdecpresentation.pdf (accessed 9/11/2012)