See How a New Mexico Plant Got 7,000 Kids to Care About Wastewater

The Albuquerque Water Authority receives a public education award for an event that teaches fourth-graders about the value of water.
See How a New Mexico Plant Got 7,000 Kids to Care About Wastewater
A student works on a scavenger hunt worksheet during a Bosque hike.

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Who really owns a river? Technically, the answer is no one. But employees of the Albuquerque Bernalillo County (New Mexico) Water Utility Authority believe their river, the Rio Grande, belongs to everyone. And with ownership comes great responsibility.

With that in mind, the authority developed an annual outreach program focused on fourth-graders, with a field trip called the River Is Ours (RIO). It brings about 7,000 kids to the river and includes follow-up class presentations and wastewater tours.

“The most powerful idea behind the program is simply to get these kids outside and excited about nature,” says Erin Keck, education coordinator. “Our goal is for each student to take ownership in the river and the environment surrounding it.”

Back to nature

The River Is Ours emphasizes the precious nature of water resources in an area where awareness and sustainability are important. Activities include tours of water-sensitive environmental areas, video presentations, puppet shows and songbooks, all to engage and inform people from early youth onward. Results include a substantial reduction of per capita water usage since the program began.

“We also give the children pre- and post-tests to gauge their buy-in,” says Keck. “It’s important to have some viable results to grow the program and evolve it over time. The River Is Ours has changed a lot in eight years.”

All fourth-grade classes in the Albuquerque Public Schools system are invited on a field trip to the river. The water authority provides free bus transportation to one of three locations: the Rio Grande Nature Center, the ABQ BioPark Botanic Garden and the National Hispanic Cultural Center. Each class has a water authority guide who leads the class in three activities.

The Albuquerque Rivers environmental organization teaches where the water in the rivers and aquifers comes from. Students learn how precious their water is, especially in their desert climate hit hard by draught. Students learn about cultural water use, New Mexico’s water history, and how technology in the water system predicts where and when water is used or consumed.

The students’ favorite is a hike in the Bosque, a dense cottonwood forest in the heart of Albuquerque. Students use tablets to take pictures of things on a scavenger hunt list and learn how each item connects directly to the Rio Grande.

“The students learn that the animals and plants living in the Bosque depend on the health of the cottonwoods,” says Keck. “Olive trees and coyote willow need the cottonwoods’ shade, and many birds nest high up in the cottonwoods to be safe. Those cottonwoods depend on the clean water provided by the Rio Grande.”

Follow-up education

Back in class, students learn more about the plants and wildlife they saw, using an interactive RIO Field Trip Field Guide, written in English and Spanish and illustrated with many students’ photos. Before or after the field trip, classes can use a RIO Field Trip In-Class Curriculum of four lessons with reading and writing components.

“I worked in the elementary classroom setting for three years, and reaching kids in that 9- and 10-year-old age group can be extremely powerful,” Keck says. “When those kids are engaged, they take home what they learned and share it with their parents, so we see quite a bit of auxiliary education. When you drive home those concepts at a young age, hopefully they are more firmly set in.”

The River Is Ours program earned the authority a 2016 Public Education Award from the Water Environment Federation. Several employees attended WEFTEC 2016 in New Orleans to accept the honor.

“Being recognized is great because it lets our community and decision-makers know that what we are doing is working,” says Keck. “It empowers us to keep building on the program, which continues to grow as part of Albuquerque’s 100-year plan.

“I’m inspired daily by a Baba Dioum quote: ‘In the end, we will conserve only what we love; we will love only what we understand, and we will understand only what we are taught.’ That is such a powerful idea, and it’s up to us as water professionals to see that through.”


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