Water Conservation: the Next Generation

Feb. 15, 2012

Teaching young people to conserve our most valuable resource

About the author:

Caitlin Cunningham is managing editor of Water & Wastes Digest. Cunningham can be reached at [email protected] or 847.391.1025.

There is a general consensus in the water industry that an unfortunate discrepancy exists between society’s perceived value of water and the resource’s true worth. As population numbers climb, urbanization and business activity accelerate, climate changes and finite water supplies diminish, public education and engagement are critical.

Teaching the next generation about water is a particularly effective outreach tactic: Lessons learned and habits practiced from an early age, after all, tend to stay with us our entire lives. Utilities, governments, nonprofit groups and private firms nationwide are leading the way, developing and delivering materials, programs and events designed to teach youth, parents and teachers the importance of conserving our most precious liquid asset.

Handouts & Web Tools

Excellent for school assignments or a rainy day at home, age-appropriate handouts and Web tools challenge children—single-handedly or with help from an adult—to tackle water topics on paper/on screen and in action. The following resources are commonly applied and have proven to be successful in outreach efforts:
     • Puzzles (e.g., crosswords, word searches, mazes, connect-the-dots);
     • Coloring books;
     • Stories;
     • Comic strips;
     • Diagrams;
     • Glossaries;
     • National or local fun facts;
     • Science experiment instructions;
     • Water usage calculators; and
     • Conservation tips to try at home, in the yard and at school.

Bold colors, an interesting layout and illustrations pique children’s interest and support the information presented. A regularly appearing mascot (e.g., Tampa Water Department’s Spotter the Otter or Tucson Water’s Pete the Beak) also can complement outreach materials, providing a fun and familiar mouthpiece for water conservation lessons.

A quick Internet search will yield a multitude of handout and website options, or a group looking to educate young people might develop and distribute tailor-made documents and URLs to support a specific goal.

Art & Writing Contests

Art and writing contests encourage budding painters, sketchers, authors and poets to practice their craft in the name of water. It is no wonder these programs are growing in popularity: Whether designing a T-shirt or penning a haiku, young contestants apply knowledge and imagination. The work they create can be displayed in public places to get communities thinking and talking about water conservation.

A contest theme (e.g., “How my Family Saves Water” or “Why [Local Water Body Name] is Important to Me”) can provide added value. The theme may change from year to year to address emerging topics of concern. Submissions generally are categorized by an applicant’s age or grade level, and potential prizes include scholarship money, gift certificates or electronic devices, in addition to a public display of winning entries.

The New York City Department of Environmental Protection has hosted its annual Water Resources Art & Poetry Contest for 25 years. The department invites kindergarteners through high school seniors from more than 90 schools to create original artwork and poems that demonstrate an appreciation for their water supplies and systems. Contest themes in 2011 included “Water Stewardship” and “Water – A Precious Resource for People and Wildlife.” Teachers, parents and residents cast more than 10,000 votes to select the most recent winners, and semifinalists and finalists were honored at a special award ceremony. More information and a showcase of winning entries are available at www.nyc.gov/dep.

Similarly, South Carolina’s Spartanburg Water has asked local elementary school students to design the T-shirt for its annual lake cleanup event. The contest coincided with Earth Day, incorporating lessons about water conservation and water body protection. Savings bonds were awarded to the top three entrants, and the first place design was applied to the official event shirts.

Water Fairs

School-, community- or organization-sponsored water celebrations encourage youngsters and their families to gather for a good time in support of the conservation cause. As with art and writing contests, a clear annual theme may add deeper meaning to a water fair, and help yield more significant results.
Such an event might feature:
     • Performers (e.g., local theater or comedy troupes, magicians and musicians) incorporating water lessons in their acts;
     • A parade;
     • Games and sports;
     • Hands-on arts and crafts stations;
     • Concessions; and
     • Booths hosted by interested parties (e.g., utilities, environmental groups, health and wellness organizations, and water-conscious vendors).

Thousands of third, fourth and fifth graders in Orange County, Calif., come together annually to celebrate water and learn about local water issues. The Children’s Water Education Festival, the largest “field trip” of its kind in the U.S., engages students in water protection and conservation with interactive presentations that meet California Science Standards. Orange County Water District, its Groundwater Guardian Team and Disneyland Resort present the celebration at no cost to participating schools, thanks to donors and volunteers.

Every September the Minnesota State Fairgrounds hosts the Metro Children’s Water Festival, the recipient of a prestigious Water Environment Federation Public Education Award. Supported by sponsors and volunteers, the event grants more than 1,000 Twin Cities fifth graders the opportunity to learn about the importance of water via science experiment demonstrations and activities.

Facility & Site Tours

Free tours of local water facilities and sites provide school groups and families an up-close-and-personal look at processes that otherwise generally go unseen and unappreciated. Guided tours of treatment plants, reuse sites and other watershed points of interest help participants understand and value the work that goes into managing, treating and delivering water.

Many utilities welcome families and school groups tours, sometimes even tailoring the sights seen and information shared to parent and teacher requests. If a live visit is not feasible, many virtual tours are available online—those of California’s San Jose/Santa Clara Water Pollution Control Plant, Utah’s St. George City Water Treatment Plant and the Binghamton, N.Y., Water Treatment Plant, to name a few.

San Antonio Water System hosts an ongoing water conservation tour with a very specific water conservation goal: to put the practice in bloom, literally. The public utility invites San Antonions to take a guided walk down WaterSaver Lane, a cluster of cottages at the city’s botanical garden that showcase attractive, water-saving landscapes. Tour participants, including parents and children, are encouraged to incorporate water-saving plants in their own yards.

A Lasting Impression

The average American family of four uses 400 gal of water per day, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Instilling the value of water in the next generation through educational and entertaining activities can go a long way in reducing this number. The next generation brings their newfound knowledge and practices home to share, and conserving water becomes second nature—for a lifetime.

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About the Author

Caitlin Cunningham

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