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With Toolkits and Robots, Schools Teach Kids About Water Conservation

Texas schools have gotten creative about water education, sometimes even giving students low-flow shower heads and other water-saving devices to install at home. But funding is a perpetual challenge.

Three students at Bayless Elementary in Lubbock, Texas, consult a water usage chart after being presented with water conservation information and Waterwise kits by the High Plains Underground Water District.

LUBBOCK — Christian Cardenas, a fifth grader at Bayless Elementary School, bubbled with excitement last month as he opened a box containing a low-flow shower head and other water-saving devices.

“These are really cool kits!” he exclaimed as he held up a packet of tablets used to detect toilet leaks. He planned to start making his home more water-efficient that evening — perhaps with his father’s help.

The kits are part of an effort by the local groundwater district to encourage conservation in a region that has been dealing with a severe drought. This school year, the High Plains Underground Water Conservation District, which stretches across 16 counties in West Texas and the Panhandle, expects to spend up to $75,000 to distribute kits and educational materials to more than 2,100 schoolchildren, including the fifth graders at Bayless. Schools elsewhere in the state also incorporate water education, but officials often face budget constraints even as they praise the effectiveness of interactive learning.

“Funding is always an issue,” said Carole Baker, the executive director of the nonprofit group Texas Water Foundation. Though hands-on programs are fairly “few and far between,” she said, they give children a water-saving ethic and can also reach parents, who may not prioritize conservation.

The High Plains district has made efforts in water-conservation education since the late 1950s, when it produced an educational comic book called “Chief Running Water’s Story of High Plains Water,” in which two children travel with the chief and his horse, Thunderhead, to learn about the Ogallala Aquifer.

In recent years, the district has distributed “WaterWise” kits, which include a rain gauge and new faucet attachments. They are assembled by Resource Action Programs, a company based in Nevada, and were distributed to about 75,000 students across Texas during the last school year.

The Harris-Galveston Subsidence District, a groundwater-regulation district in Southeast Texas, spends about $2 million a year to participate in the WaterWise program, according to David Martinez, the district’s education program coordinator. Some of the cost is shouldered by people or groups that pump too much groundwater. They can avoid fines by sponsoring water education.

Other interactive learning tools exist, too. In Frisco, a Dallas suburb, a robot called Professor WaterWise (not related to the Nevada company) speaks to fourth and fifth graders about conservation. Save Water Texas, an outreach group, helps bring mobile labs to Southeast Texas schoolchildren to show how storms replenish aquifers. The trailer’s thunder and lightning displays are a highlight.

“Experiential things really stick with kids,” said Ron Kaiser, a professor of water law and policy at Texas A&M University. Still, he said, despite anecdotal evidence about the programs’ effectiveness, few studies exist to quantify their long-term impact.

According to Resource Action Programs, its efforts saved close to 11 million gallons of water last year in the High Plains water district. That is nearly half the daily wintertime water usage in Lubbock. But that estimate is based largely on schoolchildren’s reports of how much water their families saved by installing efficient equipment.

At Bayless Elementary, the WaterWise kits complement a water-education unit enthusiastically embraced by Holly Guillmen, a science teacher.

“What are some of the reasons to conserve water?” Guillmen asked the fifth graders one day last month. Hands shot up, and one student said, “Because we’re going to need it in the future when we’re having kids.”

Nelly Perez, whose daughter Angelica participated in the Bayless WaterWise program last year, said that her daughter had installed some of the faucet equipment by herself — a month before Perez even realized it. "My daughter was like, ‘Well, Mom’s never going to get to it,’" Perez said, adding that her daughter's conservation focus has prompted the family to take shorter showers and also reduced their water bill.

The water tools are not universally embraced, however. Carmon McCain, a representative of the High Plains water district, said he was approached a few years ago by a child who had been through the WaterWise program. “Mr. McCain, my daddy doesn’t like your shower head,” the child told him.

In retelling that story, McCain smiled wryly. “You win some, you lose some,” he said.

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