West Virginia Watershed Helps Mold Water Ambassadors

Seeing, hearing and touching are better teachers than books for kids in the Western Virginia Water Authority’s outreach and education programs.
West Virginia Watershed Helps Mold Water Ambassadors
Students use a probe to test for dissolved oxygen and pH in water samples.

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The Carvins Cove Natural Reserve is a small piece of man-made nature in an urban jungle, but its impact is anything but little for the people, plants and animals dependent on its water.

The reserve faces challenges that include flooding, sediment buildup, industrial runoff, endangered species, invasive species, drought and climate change. That’s why organizations and communities are working to create a sustainable future for the watershed.

The Western Virginia Water Authority, based in Roanoke, has crafted an intensive water-themed outreach program with Carvins Cove as its centerpiece. Students in third grade and up can tour the authority’s water treatment facility and then take a short bus ride to the 3.2-billion-gallon Spring Hollow Reservoir.

It’s an opportunity in line with the authority’s mission. “We aim to provide education and a conservation ethic to our customer base,” says Sarah Baumgardner, public relations manager. “We want to help them understand where their water comes from, and hopefully spark a level of interest in the water cycle.”

Natural surroundings

Students who visit Carvins Cove, a 13,000-acre watershed that includes Spring Hollow Reservoir, can receive water-themed lessons, take a nature hike, and explore aquatic and woodland habitats. The reserve provides the first exposure to the natural environment for many students.

“Almost half of urban Roanoke students have never walked through the woods, explored a creek or seen a large body of water,” Baumgardner says. “A lot of them are scared because their only exposure to the forest has come from a book.”

“We believe that a hands-on nature experience allows students to make a tangible connection between what they learn in school as it applies to the real world,” Baumgardner says. “I believe that without these experiences, students will not grow into adults passionate about natural resources, working in the environmental field, or striving to protect our water and watersheds.”

On Carvins Cove field trips, groups of students rotate between a nature hike and various age-appropriate activities. Third-graders can play a water cycle game and learn lessons on evaporation, condensation, precipitation and water conservation. Older elementary students learn about human impacts on watersheds and water quality, water pollution and best management practices.

More intensive programming for high school and college students includes chemical and probe testing of water quality, biological testing for macroinvertebrates, and a study on the watershed’s effect on water quality. An introduction to karst topography models helps students understand groundwater zones, including the water table, zone of saturation and zone of aeration.

Older students can also take a tutorial on the authority’s geographical information system, learn to identify water and sewer infrastructure, measure distances, and use PC-based topographical maps. “Our educators are in contact with area schools before each school year to make sure our offerings fit into the curriculum,” Baumgardner says.

“Many teachers base entire units around our programming.”

Measured success

The authority tracks participants each year, documents new and repeat school and watershed visits, and surveys teachers to gain insights for refining its programs. Since 2006, programming has expanded from 1,800 to more than 13,000 students per year. “Our fall programming typically books up before the end of school in spring,” Baumgardner says. “We offer programming year-round, but fall and spring are typically the busiest because it’s the best time to get students out to the reserve.”

Feedback from students and teachers is typically positive. Students are often amazed by snippets that educators and environmentally savvy visitors find commonplace. “So many are totally surprised when we point out that the state flower, the American dogwood, actually grows on trees they can find in the reserve,” Baumgardner says. “They are also astonished to learn the journey their water takes. The treatment process is so complex.”

Staying power

The program has lasting effects: Many water authority employees took part in some form of watershed education since its inception in 2004. Several said their involvement helped steer them toward water treatment careers. “Three employees changed their majors after touring our treatment plant and reserve as junior college students,” Baumgardner says. “This industry can be difficult to attract people into, so if our programming helps to plant that seed, that’s a big deal.”

In the shorter term, the students typically pass on what they learn to their parents and other family members. “We can send out messages on conservation and environmental protection until we’re blue in the face, but the message comes through more effectively from their own children,” Baumgardner says. “We believe students are more willing to protect their water if they know where it comes from. Our goal is to teach these students to be local water ambassadors.”


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