San Antonio's Water System Taps the Wisdom of Young City Residents

San Antonio Confluence Conference enables sharing of projects and ideas by young people who are passionate about water.

San Antonio's Water System Taps the Wisdom of Young City Residents

The Confluence Conference includes booths where students display their projects and give presentations.

The 2019 San Antonio Water System (SAWS) Confluence Conference on Feb. 26 will assemble up to 700 high school students to showcase their schools’ water projects under the theme of Water Conservation.

The Confluence Conference is the capstone event in the SAWS Impact Team program. Each year, high schools throughout the San Antonio region take part in this project-based program. And since San Antonio is home to the 15-mile River Walk, there couldn’t be a more fitting place to host this event.

San Antonio, population 1.8 million, has more than 12,000 miles of water and sewer mains buried below the 560 square miles that SAWS serves.

Impact teams

To introduce the Impact Team program to San Antonio high schools, an open house is held at SAWS each September. All public, private and charter high schools are invited, as are home-schooled students. Teachers are asked to put groups of students together and work with them to design and facilitate water-related projects around the current year’s theme.

For several months, the teachers work with the students to create projects and presentations. The teachers are encouraged to get the students involved in water-related community service projects that connect with what they are learning in the classroom.

“Teachers know going in that this is a big commitment,” says Lynne Christopher, SAWS education coordinator. “Some teachers work their projects into the curriculum, and some may use it as part of their after-school ecology programs.” 

On display

The Confluence Conference is held at the Witte Museum. The students and teachers set up booths displaying their projects. The day starts at 9 a.m., and the students take turns visiting the other booths to see their counterparts’ projects and listen to their project presentations.  

After lunch break, there are more booth visits until the day ends at 3 p.m. There is no charge for the students; funding is provided by SAWS and corporate sponsors. “Even though it is a science fair of sorts, this is not a competition,” Christopher says. “The main purpose of Confluence is for students to share their projects and network with like-minded individuals who share their passion for water.”

One example of a student project on display was the design of a raking system to collect plastic floatables from a river after a rainstorm. A working model of the unit was displayed at the conference, and after graduation the students planned to take the idea to market. Another team designed a system using an electric current whereby crops could grow using less water.

In addition to the students’ booths, other exhibitors provide activities to engage the attendees. For example, the SAWS Conservation Department developed a game-show activity, the SAWS Environment Lab allows the students to dress in lab coats and safety glasses and perform hands-on experiments, and the San Antonio River Authority brings in insects from the river for the students to view.

Career opportunities

Engineering and construction firms set up booths to introduce their industries and to inform students about career opportunities. This year, SAWS is encouraging Confluence Conference exhibitors to choose a high school and work with students on their water projects from start to finish, mentoring them along the way.

“We find that a lot of the youth are very passionate about water and the environment, and one of the goals of the conference is to keep our San Antonio talent local,” Christopher says. “We feel that by getting the students engaged in water projects through the Impact Teams and displaying them at Confluence, we are achieving that goal.” Several current SAWS employees attended the conference when they were in high school.

Recently, Christopher received a call from the San Antonio Zoo asking for a booth at the next conference. The caller had attended Confluence Conference in 2012 while in high school and was working as a zoo conservation specialist.

The conference has been so popular and grown so quickly in the last seven years that SAWS now plans to roll out a middle school version based on the high school model. It will engage an even younger group of minds about the importance of water and how it touches their lives.


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