On Patrol

Fort Collins teaches conservation to kids and uses property audits to help owners irrigate their landscapes more responsibly.
On Patrol
A display at the Children’s Water Festival, an annual event that attracts some 2,000 students. The Fort Collins Water Utility is one of the festival sponsors.

In Colorado, where water rights are strictly governed and water supplies can be scant, the job of a water conservationist requires immediate action and a long-range viewpoint.

Fort Collins water conservationist Laurie D’Audney says her role is to help utility officials and political leaders prepare for the future, while keeping a close eye on the water available for the summer. The city’s education programs include classroom sessions and an audit program that helps residents get a handle on irrigation water.

Fort Collins, in the foothills of the eastern face of the Rocky Mountains, averages 16 inches in annual precipitation. Home to 150,000 people and Colorado State University, it has three surface water sources: the Cache la Poudre River that runs through the city, water from the Michigan River that flows to the Poudre; and the Colorado-Big Thompson Project, which impounds water on the west slope of the Front Range and pumps it through a tunnel to cities on the eastern side.

Education first

As Fort Collins grows, the city emphasizes resource conservation. The city has a four-level plan for water restrictions when drought limits supplies, and it includes fines for violators. But education and cooperation rate higher than writing tickets. That was the idea behind a sprinkler audit program launched in 1999 that uses summer employees to inspect properties and help home and business owners adjust lawn irrigation systems.

The workers check for broken lines or sprinkler heads and then, if the site has an automatic controller, turn their attention to the brains of the system. Since the program began, the city has audited more than 3,500 residential customers.

“It’s amazing how many people have their controllers set up by the contractor when they’re installed and they just leave them after that,” D’Audney says. The initial settings may not comply with the city’s drought response restrictions, or they may be disrupted by other factors. The audit crews help owners reset the controllers and teach them how to do so themselves.

Owners can request the audits, but the city often does them for people caught violating. “If we can help them get the controller set, then we usually don’t have a problem again,” D’Audney says. “And that’s really our goal. The first thought is to educate rather than fine someone.”

Teaching conservation

Water conservation is the focus of half of the 10 educational sessions offered during the city’s annual Residential Environmental Program Series, in its 26th year. For 2013, sessions included Tricks and Tips for Xeriscape, Evolving into a Xeriscape Design, More Color, Less Water – Dryland Perennials, Burning Questions: Fire and Our Watershed, and Cool Strategies for Summer Utility Savings.

Working with Fort Collins Utilities outreach and education supervisor Marcee Camenson, D’Audney helps recruit speakers for the classes and puts together other water conservation programs for Earth Day, community events, farmers’ markets and displays at home centers — just about anywhere they can reach Fort Collins residents.

Camenson also organizes an annual series of breakfast sessions for the utility’s Biz Ed program, including topics such as water supply and conservation. In addition, she oversees youth education, including the Dr. WATERwise program, which sends a city em-ployee into third- through fifth-grade classrooms to present hands-on projects that teach the students about water issues and conservation. The program, which reached 800 students last year, teaches students how to gauge their own water use, analyze data and find ways to “make every drop count.”

In third grade, students record the water they use for three days so they can grasp the volume passing through the tap as they bathe, brush their teeth and flush the toilet. In fourth and fifth grades, the focus turns to the sources of water and its users: residential, business, farm, industrial and recreational. They also learn how water from the Rocky Mountain snowpack serves other states downstream.

Understanding users

Dr. WATERwise uses role-playing where students represent different user categories. “They have to learn about their category, and they have to stay in their role and discuss water with students assigned to other categories,” Camenson says. “They end up learning a lot. Then we hope they go home and discuss it with their parents.”

The city also sponsors the annual Fort Collins Children’s Water Festival on the Colorado State campus. Each spring about 1,700 students attend classroom presentations, view displays and take part in activities geared to increasing water awareness.

Camenson, who also works with high school students in the WaterSHED program focusing on surface water issues, aims to engage students for more than just one year: The idea is to make sure the water lessons stick. “I want to see the students as much as I can, so by the time they graduate they are good citizens,” she says. “They’ll be the most educated population out there.”



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