Buried Treasure

As an entity that relies on local water sources — not imports — the Mesa Water District takes extra pains to teach about the importance of the resource.
Buried Treasure
Justin Finch, conservation specialist with Mesa Water, addresses a Water Issues Study Group class, demonstrating the water-wise landscaping at the district’s headquarters. U.S. Representative Dana Rohrabacher (third from left in the audience) was a guest speaker at the event.

Unlike many water districts in Southern California, the Mesa Water District doesn’t rely on water from the California Delta or the Colorado River.

Mesa Water is “off the import grid,” drawing solely from an aquifer and a second unique source deep underground. Accordingly, the district has invested not just in technology, but in education to help assure the community of a safe water supply for hundreds of years to come.

Mesa Water is an AAA-rated independent special district serving more than 110,000 customers in an 18-square-mile area that includes most of Costa Mesa, parts of Newport Beach, and some unincorporated areas in Orange County, including the John Wayne Airport. Its community education program has two target audiences: fifth graders and adults. Both programs aim to raise water awareness and encourage people to get involved.

Starting young

Because the California State Board of Education mandates science education in fifth grade that includes water, ecosystems and environments, and the forms of water, the Mesa district had the perfect opportunity. Partnering with the Newport Mesa Unified School District, teachers from the nonprofit Discovery Science Center in Orange County, and the Municipal Water District of Orange County, Mesa Water brings curriculum built around water stewardship.

“The district’s goal is to help students understand the importance of water, not only for life, but also for commerce and industry,” says Stacy Taylor, communications manager. “The core message is not that they shouldn’t use water, but that they understand the importance of water to future generations and how to use water wisely today.”

The in-school programs include a 45-minute assembly, plus the option of two follow-up laboratory-style lessons on water quality, each about one hour long. Students receive brochures about water, including a booklet from Orange County about watersheds, stormwater and pollution prevention. The Mesa Water communications staff hands out other materials about the district and water in general.

Learning in depth

The adult program is built around the district’s award-winning Water Issues Study Group (WISG), launched in 1986. It consists of evening meetings on the third Wednesday of every month for four consecutive months. As in many California communities, environmentally conscious citizens there are concerned about the state’s increasingly arid climate and about preserving water for future generations.

“We have an incredible natural resource right under us,” says Taylor. “We’re one of only two water districts with the technology to tap into and treat what’s called ‘redwood tea’ — amber-colored underground water, colored by ancient buried redwood trees.” The Mesa Water Reliability Facility (MWRF), returned to service in 2012 after a two-year improvement project, treats the water and removes its distinctive color.

The free WISG program is delivered by Mesa Water experts such as water operations manager Jerry Vilander and by guest experts from other water agencies. It includes information on the area’s water history, water quality, efficient water use, and local, regional and state water issues. The program includes a tour of the MWRF and the Orange County district’s Groundwater Replenishment System. It also gives the Mesa Water staff and its five-member board of directors ongoing interaction and dialog with constituents.

Forward looking

“The WISG program allows customers, business leaders, elected officials, media and other key audiences to learn about our water resources and water operations and to discuss issues of interest to our community, region and state, so that everyone can become more empowered water users,” says James R. (Jim) Fisler, president of the Mesa Water board. Topics for the 2013 series curriculum include:

  • California Water History and a Mesa Water Overview
  • Mesa Water’s Water Quality and Water Use Efficiency
  • Mesa Water’s Groundwater and Recycled Water
  • A Water Issues Roundtable

“Beyond sharing important information about our water system, we work hard to raise awareness of potential gaps in our infrastructure and what the community and region needs to plan for in order to sustain and maintain our water resources,” Taylor says.

“We want people to finish the program understanding the need for preservation, stewardship and sustainability. They should leave not only feeling more empowered to share Orange County’s and Southern California’s water story, but also willing to be ambassadors for Mesa Water and protectors of its future.” More than 500 people have completed the WISG program.

Recognized for excellence

The outreach programs received three awards in 2012. The district won the first place Excellence in Communications award, the highest honor, from the California Association of Public Information Officials. It also earned an Exceptional Public Outreach award from the California Special Districts Association and an award from the Orange County Chapter of the Public Relations Society of America.

“Water is necessary for health, well-being, and life — we depend on it for agriculture, commerce and recreation,” says Taylor. “Today, water is even more important due to increasing demands from the accelerating population and industrial growth. The goal for all of our educational programs is to help change how people think about this very important resource and motivate them to get engaged, be involved and spread the message.”


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