Louisville's Annual Water Festival Marks 10 Years of Inspiring Kids

Louisville Water’s Adventures in Water Festival celebrates 10 years of infusing students with passion for water and its protection.

Louisville's Annual Water Festival Marks 10 Years of Inspiring Kids

Elementary students observe dozens of fish native to the Ohio River in a 2,200-gallon tank.

Leaders at Louisville Water admit that their first attempts at school outreach more than 10 years ago were a failure. Fortunately, they weren’t deterred.

In the mid-2000s, water company educators invested in a floating barge classroom where they planned to teach elementary and middle school students about the water journey right on the Ohio River.

It seemed like a great idea, but it fell flat. “For whatever reason, the barge classroom just didn’t work. We couldn’t get the students out there,” says Kelley Dearing Smith, vice president of marketing and communications. “We decided to take the students to Water Tower Park instead and teach them about the pumping station and the river. That’s how the Adventures in Water Festival began.” 

A huge event

Last October, nearly 1,600 students and two dozen community organizations met at the 10th annual festival. It welcomed fourth- through seventh-graders from 24 public and private schools for hands-on activities in stations provided by Louisville Water community partners, including the Kentucky Science Center, WaterStep International, the Kentucky Department of Fish & Wildlife Resources, and the Louisville Fire Department.

“Our objective is to connect these students with real-world examples of water,” Dearing Smith says. “We have to be proactive. We are building a new generation of kids who value water.”

The festival featured the Louisville Water Men’s Tapping Team, demonstrating how they compete with other teams around the country. Students were not only surprised at how quickly the team worked, but by just how many taps and hydrants water company employees maintain. “Waterlines are tapped into every building in the city, and our crews maintain more than 24,000 hydrants,” Dearing Smith says. “I think it’s safe to say that most people don’t put that together.”  

Students also saw Ohio River fish in a 2,200-gallon tank and had a blast learning how to spray a fire hose. “I love the way the festival is set up in 20-minute stations,” notes Shannon Dauenhauer, a fifth-grade teacher at St. Martha Catholic School. “It keeps the kids moving, keeps their attention. They get excited about what they are learning about water, and it can generate further discussion back at school. It’s great because students get to hear lectures, see visuals and experience hands-on learning.”

Room to grow

Dearing Smith observes, “A big part of the festival is that gee-whiz experience that young kids are really going to remember, like the fire hose or the huge fish tank. We don’t go into detailed technical information. It’s more of a jumping-off point to get these kids really thinking about where their water comes from.”

The festival has been held at Water Tower Park every year except 2014, when it moved to Waterfront Park as part of the centennial festival for the city’s iconic steamship, the Belle of Louisville.

The free festival began as “an extension of our education work in the schools,” says Dearing Smith. “When we started, we wanted the festival to be a small-scale experience on a big piece of property. Small groups traveled to four or five water stations. Our message to the community partners was that their experiment or demonstration had to relate to water, and the experience had to be hands-on, interactive, meaningful, and relevant to the students.”

Schools can have students attend either a morning or afternoon session during the three-day event. Every school group gets a Louisville Water experience, which can include a tour of Water Tower Park (with a peek inside the tower) and a behind-the-scenes look at how drinking water reaches home faucets.

Since 2007, the festival has hosted 195 school groups (about 18,000 students) and 50 community partners. Dearing Smith says that many teachers have included the lessons taught at the festival in their yearly curriculum.

“We’ve actually had some teachers here since the beginning of the festival,” she says. “It’s become so popular that they need to book their spots the summer before the event. It is a great fit for their curriculum, and the sessions are short, so the kids stay engaged.”

Dearing Smith believes that it’s important that students acquire the knowledge of their water system at an early age. Too many times, she says, people typically only hear about a water system when something goes wrong.

“Often the only time you hear from a water utility is when they either want to raise your rates or when something breaks,” she says. “It’s important that our citizens, and in our festival’s case, our future ratepayers, know how much work goes into bringing them safe, clean water.”

Despite that important message, though, municipalities often look at communication and outreach as “low-hanging fruit” when considering budget cuts. Dearing Smith says that operating with that philosophy is a grave mistake.

“When you look at all the negative publicity in the recent past, especially with the Flint crisis, water systems can’t afford to not let people know what they do,” she says. “All water systems have the ability to tell a great story. You can’t give up! Those need to be celebrated!”


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