A water utility’s annual lakefront festival encourages participants of all ages to find their connection to Lake Erie.
When you think of a beach party, you picture toes in the water and a tropical drink. While learning opportunities aren’t typically part of the fantasy, they’re a big part of a yearly event on the shores of Lake Erie.
WaterFest, held every August in Avon Lake, Ohio, showcases the beauty of Lake Erie and the importance of its conservation. It was the brainchild of Elana West, community outreach specialist for Avon Lake Regional Water, who saw a similar celebration near where she has family in Stuart, Florida.
“I saw this terrific beach party atmosphere with hundreds of people having fun and learning about their water system at the same time,” she says. “I know the shores of Lake Erie don’t have the same reputation as Florida’s beaches, but that doesn’t mean we love them any less.”
The event is presented by the utility in partnership with the city of Avon Lake and Friends of the Parks. It aims to make conservation fun by offering ways to interact with the lake, including recreational adventures, children’s activities, art and food.
Among dozens of organizations offering family-friendly activities are Ohio Sea Grant, The Ohio State University’s Stone Lab, the U.S. Coast Guard, the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, and Lorain County Metro Parks. West says the festival provides a broad overview of the importance of water. “I would say WaterFest is a 5,000- or 10,000-foot view of what we do,” she says. “It’s certainly an opportunity to help ratepayers learn their impact on water.”
WaterFest includes events for kids of all ages. In the past, master sandcastle builder Carl Jara has created one-of-a-kind masterpieces. Kids displayed their own sand-castle skills in a nearby play area.
Eco-recreation experts LoCo Yaks, West River Paddle Sports, Hooks for Hunger and Firelands Fly Fishing provided clinics to help families prepare to explore Ohio’s waters.
Follow the Fish, an art and conservation organization, displays nature-themed projects and an art shop, showcasing artists from around the region and artwork from Eastview Elementary School students.
A highlight of the event is the Raingutter Regatta, in which Cub Scout packs give kids ages 6 to 11 a free boat kit. After building their boats, kids sail them via lung power down a water-filled rain gutter. “The event is a lot like a Pinewood Derby where kids race cars against each other,” says West. “It’s a lot of fun to see the way the kids embellish their boats. It draws a huge crowd.”
Safety and education
Other fun-themed competitions include U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary-sponsored life jacket races, and a U.S. Navy Sea Cadets knot-tying activity. Educational offerings include tours of the historic Peter Miller House on the lakefront, and rain barrel and composting demonstrations. The DNR conducts free boat inspections, and the Lorain County Metro Parks Department presents a Predators of the Sky raptor experience.
Because West felt it was important to focus on Lake Erie’s fish, she worked with the state Division of Wildlife to secure a grant for a mobile indigenous fish aquarium and touch tank for children. Older kids can tour the division’s electrofishing boat, while the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers highlights its Seamore the Sea Dragon interactive watercraft.
The parks department offers an on-land kayak clinic, while the Avon Lake Fire Department has its water rescue truck on site decked out with gear and performs a watercraft and safety demonstration.
Last but not least, there is an all-ages triathlon/duathlon and a Kids’ Junior Splash & Dash for ages 7 to 14 that includes a Lake Erie swim and run around Miller Road Park.
The free event has drawn about 1,000 people per year, and attendance grows each year. The focus on children reflects the festival’s mission: to inspire children to connect with Lake Erie on some level, even if only associating it with fun, so they care about it in the future.
“Whether that means going into research, rescue, law en- forcement or politics, or simply making planet-friendly choices, it’s good,” says West. “If the parents connect with or learn a little more about Lake Erie, too, that’s a bonus.”
Though the lake is the drinking water source for many Ohioans, its health is sometimes put at risk. A growing population, mass water removal, microbead pollution and fertilizer runoff are among the threats WaterFest highlights. “We’ve found the best ratepayer is an educated ratepayer,” West says. “Educating them helps them realize how complicated and fragile the water system actually is.”
Primarily, WaterFest is a chance for families to enjoy themselves. West believes that light nature is the key to the event and is what other utilities should focus on if they want to do something similar.
“The results of your outreach efforts aren’t always immediate,” she cautions. “You’ll see it down the line when those young kids take better care of the lakes because they’ll understand where we’re coming from. They’ll remember the great time they had racing toy sailboats years ago and put it together. That’s when you know you have more than just a beach party.”