A Poster Contest Winner as a Child Creates a Similar Contest as an Adult

The Carmichael Water District creates a water-wise poster contest to engage middle school students on water conservation.

A Poster Contest Winner as a Child Creates a Similar Contest as an Adult

A sampling of excellent works from entrants in the Carmichael Water District poster contest.

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Chris Nelson of the Carmichael Water District had no idea when he won a poster calendar contest in middle school that the accomplishment would come back full circle.

Fast forward 30 years later and he is the public information officer for the California district. About 10 miles east of Sacramento, the district has provided water for more than 100 years to its residents, now numbering 43,000. The utility maintains 154 miles of waterlines.

Reaching out to students

In 2005, the utility was having a tough time reaching middle school students about the importance of water conservation and water efficiency. A district director at the time proposed an idea his Rotary Club had tried: a poster contest with the winning works included in a calendar.

The director brought some sample calendars to pitch the idea to Nelson. Lo and behold, the director had brought a calendar from when Nelson had won the contest; Nelson immediately recognized his entry.

Nelson put a team together to brainstorm ideas and determine how the contest would be administered, judged and awarded. He engaged the Kiwanis Club to sponsor the program with the utility. Barrett Middle School was the first in the service area to try the contest.

The calendar team includes staff from the district and representatives from the Kiwanis Club and Barrett Middle School; they meet every year to create a theme for the students’ artworks. “This can be challenging because the contest is going on its 15th year,” says Nelson.

Rules of engagement

The contest kicks off in September when the students return to school. The deadline for submissions is mid-October. The submissions must be original and cannot use any logos. The competition is promoted through the Kiwanis Club, middle school teachers, the district’s website and social media.

The calendar team meets in the school principal’s office to judge the entries. Up to 200 entries are typically submitted; winners are announced at the end of October. The winning entries are printed in a calendar, distributed in December and given away to district residents. The utility also distributes them at community outreach events and keeps a supply at its service counter.

“Each year the submissions are like a snapshot in time,” Nelson says. “When the area is experiencing flooding or droughts, the students incorporate those issues into their submissions. This past year with COVID, the artwork included the students in their submissions wearing masks because they were learning from home.” 

Celebrating the winners

The district holds a pizza party right before one of its board meetings where the winning entries, made into large posters, are displayed. “It’s like an art gallery,” Nelson says. “The students explain their entries, and we celebrate their creativity.”

A big crowd attends every year, including school children and their families, along with utility staffers and board members. Each winner gets a $25 gift card; the grand prize winner receiving a $75 gift card provided by the Kiwanis Club.

Going forward, there might be some changes. “We learned some things during the pandemic, such that calendars are going more digital,” says Nelson. Because many students have calendars on their phones, the district is considering making the contest calendars available for viewing on that medium.

The district is also contemplating expanding the contest to more middle schools to cast a wider net in teaching about water conservation and efficiency.   


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