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HW 33 cover smWater educators are on a mission for people to know more about water, and to know enough to care and act. Engagers aren't so different. Check out this issue of Headwaters to learn more about water education and engagement in Colorado and take a look at our toolkit that explores the major challenges that educators say they face, plus inspiring ideas for overcoming them. Whether you're targeting youth or adults, focused on advancing water conservation or facilitating public dialogue on contentious water issues, or working in another field entirely, we offer something for everyone. Flip through or download the education and engagement issue online

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By Gail Binkly

For the vast majority of Coloradans, water is as close as the nearest faucet. Clean, cheap and seemingly abundant, it flows at the turn of a knob. How, then, to persuade people that the substance is actually scarce and precious—needed not only for drinking and landscaping, but for sanitation, agriculture, natural resource extraction, manufacturing and, of course, for keeping rivers flowing? 

Moreover, how to engage the public in activities such as protecting or restoring waterways or working toward solutions to possible water shortages? The answer: water education.

Since the first covered wagons creaked across the borders of what is now Colorado, water education has been ongoing, although in the earliest days it was as rudimentary as old-timers warning settlers, “Don’t build too close to that river,” or “It gets mighty dry here in July.”

Today, water education has burgeoned into a richly diverse field that seeks to inform citizens and leaders about everything from the
need for conservation to the complexities of water law, from the basics of irrigation and Xeriscaping to the dangers of flooding. Across
the state, a plethora of programs offer workshops, tours, trainings, festivals and seminars geared to audiences of all ages and levels of expertise. Water educators visit classrooms, host field trips, and disseminate information via every type of media available. Yet the job is far from finished, and some worry that all the efforts aren’t enough.

Read more: To People Across Colorado, Making Water Known

By Janice Kurbjun

Although water is gaining increasing attention in the arid West, water educators continue to struggle with attracting widespread attention or generating concern outside of crisis periods, such as drought, flood and wildfire.

Recent natural disasters have helped utilities make headway in water education, but the window of opportunity in which people remember the disaster and are supportive of solutions, including bearing the cost of improving infrastructure or participating in conservation efforts, typically lasts only two years, says Diana Royval, communications and marketing manager for Fort Collins Utilities. It’s a key time to capitalize on people’s increased receptivity to water-related messaging, but how do you maintain
that momentum?

According to Mike Sukle, owner of Sukle Advertising, effective campaigns first raise awareness, then begin to alter a person's feelings toward an issue. Finally, they show evidence of broad changes in consumer behavior— often the goal of water education programs.

In the midst of the 2002 drought, which followed a quarter-century of plenty, Denver Water boosted awareness by adding heft to its water conservation messaging. A highly visible advertising campaign was supported by additional staff outreach efforts.

Sukle Advertising, brought on board in 2000, initially took the utility’s “Don’t Waste Water” slogan and gave it a positive spin to become “Nothing Replaces Water.” According to Sukle, a positive angle is essential for engaging audiences. For Denver Water, the message wasn't about sacrifice, nor was it about restricting, says Stacy Chesney, media communications manager at Denver Water. “It's about not wasting, and people can get behind that.”

As the drought deepened, the message became “It's a drought. Do something,” empowering the audience with its call to action. When the drought waned before picking back up in 2006, the utility sought to “capture the water savings we saw during the drought with messaging that would really resonate with our audience,” says Chesney. “This wasn't about drought, it was about using water efficiently.”

The “Use Only What You Need” message and its 2013 iteration, “Use Even Less,” have gained international attention, both as a successful advertising initiative and a community awareness project. That awareness has led to the utility’s desired outcome: behavioral change. The utility has measured a 20 percent reduction in water use since 2006, nearing its goal of 22 percent by 2016.

By tracking political and social patterns, water educators can also leverage messaging accordingly. At the time Denver Water’s 2002 campaign was developed, the shift toward the green movement was gaining momentum, says Trina McGuire-Collier, Denver Water’s assistant director of public affairs. “You can have a great idea but if the public is not in a place where it's resonating, it's hard to make the connection.”

By Caitlin Coleman

What does potable mean? How about flocculation? Water professionals frequently toss around jargon and expect the public to understand, but what if they don’t? Misconceptions and lack of understanding, even on the superficial level of vocabulary, can impact public opinion—and even put potential water solutions on hold.

Water reuse professionals, for example, explain that when public opposition halts a project to reclaim wastewater for irrigation or drinking, people might not necessarily be against the idea if they truly understood it. About a decade ago, water reuse projects were proposed in San Diego and Los Angeles, but the projects failed. In the media and public eye, the phrases “toilet to tap” and “yuck factor” took hold, along with a political cartoon of a dog drinking from the toilet and its owner demanding the dog move over so
he could have a drink. It’s no wonder Californians were put off by the “yuck.”

Similarly, outdoor water conservation campaigns have had to overcome the cultural norm of lush Kentucky bluegrass lawns, along with confusion over jargon (it’s “Xeriscape” not “zeroscape”), and intimidation around installing or properly caring for a xeric yard. “We’ve had to do a bit of educating so that the community understands that Xeriscape is not rock or bark,” says Zach Verslius
with Aurora Water’s conservation department. “Once people have been shown examples of Xeriscape, they are typically in favor of it.”

Public education, along with rebates, water audits, demonstration gardens and free landscape design consultations have built acceptance and confidence in implementing outdoor conservation measures. “It’s not even just because of the money, the rebates,” says Verslius. “These days customers are thinking it’s not sustainable to have as much grass as we have and it’s time to change.”

As for reuse, a handful of facilities recycle treated wastewater in Colorado—and so far they haven’t faced the extensive public perception issues California did. Educators and professional communicators are seeing their efforts to use approachable terminology, explain the water cycle, and overcome the once-perceived stigma of reuse pay off. “Municipalities [in Colorado] where recycled water systems have gone in have been incredibly supportive,” says Brian Good with Denver Water and former president of the National
Water Reuse Association. “It’s kind of been like, ‘Duh, why didn’t you think of this before?’” 

Good believes the perception shift is a necessary one, particularly in arid geographies. “In the future, we’re all going to have to be a lot more creative on how we stretch our available water supplies,” he says. And helping communities understand problems and potential solutions is a first step.

By Janice Kurbjun

“How much water goes into that soccer field?” It's a question Natalie Brower-Kirton, senior program specialist for Aurora Water, poses to children during her programs. Students have to stop and think: How much water does go into that soccer field?

“The water they drink and use at their house is important,” Brower-Kirton says, “but playing on a soccer field also uses water.” Brower-Kirton's approach is one many water educators are taking in an age of relative disconnect, short attention spans and technological distractions for young people: bringing concepts home in tangible lessons and activities kids can relate to.

Educators find that youth, like adults, become more engaged in abstractions such as water scarcity when they are given tools to effect change. Water conservation becomes real through trainings on using shower timers to remind them not to linger, replacing leaky toilet flappers, and other simple lessons such as saving 10 gallons a day by turning off faucets while brushing teeth.

Many water educators also look to give children tangible, outdoor experiences, though winning time with schools for such activities can be a challenge, says Mike Wilde, educational consultant at the Roaring Fork School District. The key to success, he says, is finding administrators and educators who buy in to such experiences and tying environmental lessons to other subjects, such as math and English.

Recently, particularly following the Colorado Department of Education’s adoption of the Colorado Environmental Education Plan in late 2012, public schools have been revamping curriculum and looking beyond school walls for ways to fulfill state standards in environmental education, including water. The state plan, created over a two-year period by the Colorado Alliance for Environmental
Education and a dedicated task force, is widely considered a step forward in the quest for environmental literacy, as the plan seeks to restore and increase field experiences as well as improve statewide access to existing environmental education programs and materials.

As a result of the plan, the Greenway Foundation’s South Platte River Environmental Education (SPREE) program began working with two partner schools to present a water-based chemistry unit that extracted children from the classroom. The tools of Colorado’s River Watch program were implemented to link abstract chemistry lessons to real-life water quality issues. For their final project, students used data to recommend a positive change for the river. “It was a real way to make chemistry come alive for students,” says SPREE
youth development director Mary Palumbo.

SPREE also organizes grade-specific field trip sites on public land along the South Platte River. Lessons combine with tangible experiences to empower kids to have a positive impact on the environment. “It creates a sense of excitement and belonging to this place,” says Palumbo. “We teach them that they own the park and can come here for free, but when you own something, it’s also your job to take care of it.”

By Caitlin Coleman

The world of water management is complex, and because everyone has a stake in the resource, decision-making processes can be
technical and cumbersome. But that doesn’t mean citizens shouldn't speak up about issues that matter to them. With federal and state laws mandating public comment processes, agencies and legislators looking to hear from their constituents to develop solutions to water issues, and advocacy organizations rallying citizens to make their voices heard, the challenge is knowing where to begin.

If an irrigation company or utility hopes to build a dam, for example, they might deal with myriad government agencies and go through a separate public comment process for each. For those interested in participating, the challenges of reading long documents, submitting comments through official feedback mechanisms, tracking agency responses and remaining engaged for what could be years to see evidence of change can be prohibitive.

When a project with a federal nexus evolves, agencies must legally disclose information about that project. Depending on the proposal, they may be required to provide outlets for engagement under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), soliciting public feedback related to the environmental impacts of the project and considering all comments received on a draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) before it is finalized and distributed. Similar processes exist at the state level. Entities putting forth water projects must craft a fisheries and wildlife mitigation plan with Colorado Parks and Wildlife staff. These plans integrate comments received on related EIS’s and garner additional feedback of their own.

Permitting can be long, arduous and frustrating for everyone involved. In the case of the Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District’s Northern Integrated Supply Project (NISP), the process has continued for a decade. To date, Northern has spent between $10 and $12 million on behalf of NISP’s project participants, and much more remains to be done. At the same time, citizens have followed every step due to concerns about the project’s impacts. Still, such processes aren’t there just to be difficult, says
Becky Long, advocacy director with the nonprofit Conservation Colorado. Instead, they’re in place to help leaders answer key questions and choose the best path forward.

That feedback process is crucial, agrees Kara Lamb, public involvement specialist at the Bureau of Reclamation, and it makes a difference. For example, when Reclamation modernized the dams at Horsetooth Reservoir 13 years ago, staff didn’t realize the importance of rock climbing around the reservoir until climbers spoke up. The climbers’ input enabled the agency to preserve
most access points. “We wouldn’t have had that information if they didn’t come forward, so [NEPA] does work,” says Lamb.

Significant roadblocks, however, according to Long, are that people aren’t always sure how to engage and then when they do, they can leave wondering whether their comments entered a vacuum. “It makes them feel like, ‘Why should I [participate], because last time it went into a big void,’” Long says.

Lamb sees the same problem, but traces it back to a common misconception: People want to “vote” through NEPA, assuming that if
enough of them express their dislike for a project, the agency will shut it down, Lamb says. The NEPA engagement process doesn’t account for personal opinions, and in most cases, won’t result in a project’s demise; rather, it exists to collect, disclose and analyze information. “People say, ‘If I stood up, why isn’t my voice being heard?’” explains Lamb. “But what NEPA is looking for is tangible and scientific.” 

A famous example of the process at work, and one that still echoes in Colorado, is that of Two Forks, the 1 million-acre-foot reservoir put forth by Denver Water in the 1970s and ‘80s that was denied a Clean Water Act 404 permit to “dredge and fill” by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Although the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was prepared to issue that permit, the EPA disagreed, finding that the project would cause serious environmental damage, avoidable with an alternative plan—an alternative that existed thanks to public involvement. 

Dan Luecke, regional director of the Environmental Defense Fund at the time, put together the alternative that the EPA used to deny the Two Forks permit. Like Lamb, Luecke highlights the importance of that tangible, scientific information in influencing decision-making. “The public can get involved in these processes to make their opinions known and they very much did in Two Forks,” he says. “But those who would oppose a certain project or advocate for an alternative have got to have significant technical capabilities to accomplish much.”

“I don’t know that there is any easy solution,” adds Luecke. “But that doesn’t mean the public shouldn’t get involved; that doesn’t
mean the public shouldn’t stand up.”

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