Just Ask Any Fourth-Grader

Education is the future of water quality for one of the driest communities in the Southwest. In Rio Rancho, you’re never too young to learn.
Just Ask Any Fourth-Grader
Anders Watson helps plant native shrubs in the bosque.

When a community is seriously short of water, every drop becomes more precious. The City of Rio Rancho, in an arid region on the northwest edge of Albuquerque, N.M., knows this all too well.

That’s a key reason Rio Rancho has been a pioneer in programs that educate residents and businesses about water conservation. Those efforts helped Marian Wrage, the city’s environmental programs manager, win the 2012 Alice Darilek Water Conservation Award from the Rocky Mountain Section AWWA.

Wrage’s nomination cited her “devotion, enthusiasm, leadership and commitment” to conservation. Since she took on her role in 2006, the city’s education and outreach activities have increased dramatically. In the past year, 102 public events reached an estimated 15,000 people.

Focus on youth

Rio Rancho, population 90,000, sees less than 10 inches of annual rainfall and less than 8 inches of snow. Drinking water comes from 17 wells. The city operates 10 arsenic treatment facilities.

A key objective for Rio Rancho is educating youth. “Most of our programs are hands-on learning activities, predominately directed at grade school kids,” says Wrage. “With the really young kids, we keep the message simple. For example, while we still talk about grease issues and water conservation, we help them understand how wastewater flows in small pipes from homes to larger pipes and then to the water treatment plant by drawing a subdivision on poster board, then gluing pasta noodles of different sizes on their map.”

After-school Safe Programs provide multiple opportunities for presenters to conduct water-quality talks with K-5 students. The kids show continual interest in topics tailored to their age levels and their interests in home and community.

A big challenge in working with schools is meeting education standards: “If programs don’t do this, the teachers may not let you come in or invite you back,” Wrage says. Some standards recently changed in New Mexico; Wrage and her associates had to study them and adjust a number of the programs. “We then show teachers which new standards our programs meet,” she says. “This helps teachers agree to schedule the programs.”

Water festival

The city’s biggest outreach program, Children’s Water Festival, has been going strong since 2007. This two-day program focused on fourth-graders this year reached 1,500 students, who learned about water cycles, ecosystems, water quality, wastewater and water conservation.

Classrooms are formed in a city building using pipe and drape walls. Students are bused in 350 to 400 at a time. They split up and rotate between 15 learning stations, each with a fun hands-on activity. Volunteer presenters include representatives from city contractors, engineering firms and water equipment suppliers, as well as National Forest employees, teachers and Wrage’s staff. Additional volunteers help direct and aid students.

Fifth-graders take part over several months in River Xchange, a program trademarked by Orilla Consulting that engages them in critical thinking skills. They visit and learn about their local watershed or river, then exchange insights with peers across the country on “wiki” websites. In high school, the Every Drop Counts program encourages students taking part in science fairs to compete for a $100 prize for the best water-related project.

Homes and businesses

Wrage has presented to countless groups of all ages. She previously worked 15 years for a full-service environmental lab as the quality assurance/quality control officer. She now supervises three full-time employees who focus on aspects of water education that include outreach; industrial pretreatment; fats, oils and grease (FOG); domestic wells; and backflow prevention. These efforts ultimately embrace both businesses and residents.

Grease is an important issue. Food operations must have their main grease sumps pumped four times a year. Inspectors check grease traps and sink traps and inform managers about problems and best practices.

Residents learn about FOG and water conservation practices through channels that include billboards, newspaper ads and a commercial played at the new movie theater in town. A local grocery store distributes free grease scrapers and an informative brochure.

Wrage considers newsletters effective when mailed directly to homes. “We’ve received far more call-ins from direct mail,” reports Wrage. “We believe bill stuffers get thrown away more than they’re read.”

Thanks to Wrage, her colleagues and the city’s business partners, students and adults in Rio Rancho may be some of the best-educated citizens on water conservation anywhere. Just ask any fourth-grader.


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