Just For Grown-Ups

An online Water School helps the Brazos River Authority educate adults about the importance of water quality and conservation.
Just For Grown-Ups
Illustrations on the online Water School, such as the basic water cycle, help visually explain topics.

In a state that appears to be emerging from one of its worst droughts on record, keeping Texans up to date about water levels and sharing water conservation tips have been top priorities for the public information office at the Brazos River Authority.

But public education is another key responsibility, and public information officer Judi Pierce says it is a subject under constant review. In 2009, authority officials were discussing plans to update the education program when Pierce pointed out something she and her assistants had noticed: They get a lot of questions from adults.

The questions covered everything from "Why are you releasing water from the dam?" to "Can I dump my grass clippings in the lake?" As they discussed the questions, Pierce says, "One of our conclusions was that adult education is just as important as youth education."

So, operating on a shoestring budget, Pierce and her assistants started a six-month process of developing the authority's Water School, a blog-based online site that tackles a wide array of topics from water quality and water supplies to recreational opportunities and future plans. The program was launched in April 2010.

Compiling questions

The Brazos River Authority has a mission almost as broad as the swath its borders cut across Texas. Headquartered in Waco, the state-chartered agency serves a 42,000-square-mile territory that includes all or part of 70 counties from the Texas-New Mexico border to the Gulf of Mexico. It owns three reservoirs — Possum Kingdom, Granbury and Limestone — and has contracts with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for water storage space at eight federal reservoirs in the basin.

The authority owns and operates water treatment systems at Lake Granbury (supplying wholesale customers in Hood and Johnson Counties), the City of Taylor, and the City of Dime Box. It also partners with the Lower Colorado River Authority in a water treatment plant in Leander. The authority also owns and operates wastewater systems for two regional groups and several cities in its service area.

The first step in developing the adult education initiative was to compile an extensive list of topics based on the staff's records and memories of public inquiries, a process that blended the concepts of "frequently asked questions" and "everything you wanted to know, but didn't think to ask." In other words, Pierce and her staff tried to anticipate questions they thought people could (or should) ask about their water sources.

Lots of interaction

"People often don't think about where their water comes from or how it gets there until they have a problem," says Pierce. The Water School is built on a framework of blogging software, allowing the team to treat each individual question as a separate entry with its own box.

The format also allows readers to pose follow-up questions on topics that pique their curiosity. Since funding for the project was limited — it began with no budget — Pierce and her team had to be creative. "We used our in-house information technology resources to help us develop the site," she says. "And we used freeware we found to develop the actual pages."

The questions were compiled by public information staff members, who researched and wrote the answers, but her team often sent questions and answers to staff engineers and hydrologists to confirm the information they were preparing to share. "It was pretty much a six-month project of collecting the questions, refining the answers, and then getting the material vetted and approved," says Pierce. "It was a learning process. We have an incredibly educated staff that has helped educate our department so we can answer the public's questions."

The team focused on keeping the answers understandable for the average reader. "It may be a little elementary for some adults, but for the most part it is geared to people 14 or 15 and up," Pierce says. The authority uses the "Major Ri vers" program developed with other Texas authorities to educate younger students about water issues, but the Water School is focused on junior high students and up.

More than the basics

The Water School is broken into 20 categories, beginning with a basic section that answers questions about the Brazos River Authority itself. The site can be easily updated. As of early May, Pierce says, "We have 215 entries and growing."

The site includes an internal search feature that allows users to quickly track down specific topics that might have brought them to the Water School. Many answers also include illustrations to help visually explain everything from the broad swath of the Brazos River basin to the operations of a water treatment plant and the basic water cycle.

The IT department is installing Google Analytics on the Water School site, so Pierce hasn't had a way to take virtual attendance until now. But she does know that close to 50 people have called with further questions after visiting the site, and some questions have prompted additions to the curriculum.

Compiling the Water School was an arduous task, but Pierce believes it was worth the effort: "The need for the public to understand the importance of water in our daily lives is essential. With the rate of growth in the region, the state could run out of water in this basin by 2050 if we don't focus on this resource."


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