Henry County Kids Go Outdoors to Learn About Watersheds, Water Quality and Water Conservation

Cubihatcha Kids program teaches third-graders about watersheds, water quality and water conservation in a natural setting in Henry County.

Henry County Kids Go Outdoors to Learn About Watersheds, Water Quality and Water Conservation

Javier Sayago (center) of Henry County Stormwater teaches kids about runoff pollution and how they can help prevent it

In the early 1980s, Georgia’s Henry County was a rural place with about 35,000 residents. Today, it’s part of the Atlanta metropolitan area with a population approaching 250,000.

Still, the more pastoral heritage lives on in the Henry County Water Authority’s Cubihatcha Outdoor Education Center, encompassing 1,000 acres of land between two of the authority’s five drinking water reservoirs.

Each September, about 3,000 third-graders from the Henry County schools visit the center for a day of learning about nature; wildlife; and — most important — watersheds, the water cycle, water quality, and water treatment. Called Cubihatcha Kids, the program is the keystone of the authority’s public outreach, promoting watershed protection and resource stewardship.

The authority partners with the Henry County Board of Education and other public and nonprofit organizations to put on half days of hand-on activities at stations placed along the education center’s 10 miles of trails. In the 14 years since its inception, more than 40,000 kids have taken part.

“This program has grown and evolved to the point where it is very popular — it’s phenomenal,” says Lindy Farmer, Henry County Water Authority general manager. “It has turned into something truly special and very much needed in our communities and Henry County.”

Setting the scene

Cubihatcha Center (the name is a Native American word for “Land Between the Lakes”) came about while the authority looked to expand its water supply in the face of growth as Atlanta expanded outward. “In the early 2000s and late 1990s, this was one of the fastest-growing counties in the state if not the nation,” Farmer says.

The authority’s five reservoirs cover 3,138 acres and hold 18.1 billion gallons, more than 600 days of supply. Average water demand is about 14.7 mgd. The wastewater system includes three treatment plants with a total design capacity of 10.75 mgd (average flow 6.8 mgd).

Land for Cubihatcha Center was set aside as part of the authority’s federal government permitting process to construct a network of new reservoirs. The landscape includes bottomlands, forested wetlands and uplands. Beyond its education function, the site serves as a wetland enhancement area to help improve and protect diverse fish and wildlife habitats.

The property includes an office, a meeting room/classroom, and various pavilion shelters. The site is available to the public for activities like fishing, kayaking, 5K runs, family and group picnics, bird-watching, and special deer hunts for youth and veterans.

Tightly organized

Cubihatcha Kids visits are spread across three weeks in September. Buses arranged by the school system roll in at about 9:30 a.m. The kids divide into groups of about two dozen and by 10 a.m. start visiting a series of four hands-on activity stations.

“We do some extreme planning on the front end, so on the day, we know which schools are coming, how many kids we’ll have, how many instructors we need, and who is supposed to go where,” says Ken Presley, reservoir manager and center director. The kids spend 20 minutes at each station and then have 10 minutes to walk to their next stop. Their routes are mapped out and trail signage directs them. The activities end around noon; the kids enjoy a lunch and then board the buses to go back to school.

Activity instructors include authority staff members, school teachers, volunteers, and members of partnering organizations. “We keep the topics diverse,” Presley says. “We expose the kids to at least some activities covering water, wetlands and stormwater. We might include an activity around owl pellets or crawfish anatomy.” Activities vary year to year and have included:

  • Georgia Department of Natural Resources staffers leading wildlife viewing experiences.
  • Georgia Forestry Commission team members teaching about native trees or controlled burns.
  • Georgia EMC, representing the state’s electric cooperatives, demonstrating solar energy.
  • County board of education holding physical education activities and teaching about water, wastewater and water conservation.
  • Georgia Farm Bureau giving planting demonstrations and sending each child home with a potted plant.
  • Henry County UGA Extension Office leading water-related activities.
  • The University of Georgia, the Georgia Wildlife Federation and the Atlanta Audubon Society have also contributed at times. 

Great for the kids

Most of all, Cubihatcha Kids is a hit with the young folks. “The kids love being out here,” Presley says. “They love a chance to come outside and get into a learning environment that’s different from a normal school setting. It enhances their learning. When you watch them, you can tell they’re having a good time.”

Presley notes that the makeup of the students has changed since the county transitioned from rural to heavily urban: “Originally a lot of the students had experience in the outdoors. Now, most of the kids who come here don’t experience the outdoors daily. They get to learn new things in a setting they’ve never been accustomed to. They see the reservoirs, and they learn that when they turn on their tap on, this is where the water comes from. That’s pretty cool.”

Seeing the success of Cubihatcha Kids, the authority is looking to close the circle in the future by adding activities for high school students. “Being a good steward of our resources is something the water authority takes pride in,” Presley says. “That’s the vision of our board, and we want to pass that on to the citizens of our county, especially the school kids.”

The water industry is also taking notice. In 2016, the Metropolitan North Georgia Water Planning District gave the Cubihatcha Kids program its STREAM Award for excellence in education and outreach. The Georgia Association of Water Professionals presented the authority with the Program of Excellence Award last year (2017) for Cubihatcha Kids, in addition to having its cumulative public outreach efforts selected by the Georgia Association of Water Professionals as the Public Education Program of the Year in 2007, 2009 and 2011.

“Overall, it has been a huge success,” Presley notes. “It has placed the water authority and the board of education in a positive light. Other water agencies have expressed interest in using our program as a model. That and the awards we win are proof that we must be doing something right.”


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