Planning for the Future: Water Education for Colorado's Youth

Jul 10, 2014

A student from St. Mary's School in Denver reaches for a rock in a stream near Breckenridge, CO. The students were looking for aquatic bugs as part of a lesson on stream health taught by the Keystone Science School.
Credit Sam Fuqua

When it comes to water, Colorado’s kids can expect to face a challenging future;  a growing population and increasing demand may mean difficult trade-offs.  That’s one reason educators and policy-makers say it’s critical to teach young people about water management.

On a breezy spring morning in south Denver, a line of about 30 teenagers snakes down a hill at Overland Pond, a little urban park next to the South Platte River.  The kids are passing golf balls to each other really fast, and dropping many of them. 

The Greenway Foundation, a Denver-based river conservation group, organized the outing.  Mary Palumbo is the group’s youth development director.

“We have students up a hill representing the headwaters, and they’re passing little golf balls at different paces, depending on what season we’re representing,” said Palumbo.   

When lots of golf balls were “flying everywhere,” Palumbo said that represented flooding.  In the summertime, Palumbo said, they pass the balls a little slower.  “We’re using this tool to talk about the variables in water, and how it’s not always consistently available to us.”

It’s a lesson in stream flow dynamics, and makes high school senior Marcos Morales think of a waterslide.

“Because [of] how the river moves in different directions and turns a lot of corners,” said Morales.  “The sides of the water slide are actually bigger and more protected, so you don’t fall out.”

Palumbo says it’s important that students like Morales can make that kind of connection between their own lives and the water-oriented activities.

“Kids want something that is relevant to their lives,” said Palumbo.  “Just getting them out to a place that feels like nature, even though we’re city kids and we live in the middle of highways, we still have a connection to nature.”

Eighty miles west of Denver, another group of kids is getting ready for a different water lesson at the Keystone Science School, near Breckenridge.  Students come from all over the state for an overnight stay and outdoor study experience in and around the school’s 23-acre campus.

Dave Miller, the director of school programs, says they teach students that water is a finite resource.  “It’s something that has to be treated with care,” said Miller.  “It has to be something that is managed properly.”

The day’s lesson starts with a short hike into the hills to a small steam, about four feet wide and full of spring snow melt.  The students lift rocks out of the stream and turn them over, looking for little bugs called aquatic macro invertebrates. 

Keystone Science School instructor Kristen Greenwald helps students put the aquatic macroinvertebrates they found in a nearby stream into an ice cube tray for identification.
Credit Sam Fuqua

It’s part of a lesson on stream health, says science school instructor Kristen Greenwald.  “Depending on what they find,” said Greenwald, “it will tell us perhaps how polluted the stream is.  It’s just one indicator. “  Sometimes, Greenwald says, chemical tests don’t reflect pollution in the stream.  “But if you find no macro-invertebrates, it tells you there’s more going on than you realize and you need to do further tests.”

After a lunch break, Greenwald pulls a big back of chocolate chips from her backpack.  She explains to the kids that it’s time for a lesson in prior appropriation—the system that determines who gets how much water in Colorado. 

Lining the students up, she starts pouring lots of chips into the cupped hands of the students at the head of the line, those representing the senior water rights holders.  She tells the students at the start of the line that they get a lot of chips, and can have more if they want them.

By the time she reaches the students at the end of the line, the junior water rights holders, she’s running out of chips. 

It’s these types of lessons and more that educators say will help inform the students about law, hydrology, and other water-related issues, information they’ll need in the decades to come when they’re making decisions as voters, homeowners, and policy makers.

Connecting the Drops is a yearlong collaboration between Rocky Mountain Community Radio Stations and the Colorado Foundation for Water Education. Find out more about water in the state at