Colorado youth are tomorrow’s water leaders, and in the Valley they are getting a head start. Natural resource education opportunities are abundant between the Sangre de Cristos and the San Juans, and teachers are connecting their students to one of the Valley’s most priceless resources – water – through Colorado Academic Standards approved lessons in nature’s classroom.
“Water, where it comes from affects us and what happens in our community,” explained Conejos Water Conservancy District Manager and Conejos County Conservation District Supervisor Nathan Coombs to a group of North Conejos School District students earlier this year. “And we have to measure water to know if it is going to the right places… the value of water is tremendous.”
After breaking down water management in the Conejos District to a few key vocabulary words – priority, compact, curtail, diversion, aquifer, ground water and surface water – Coombs brought it to life standing over the Conejos River on the Manassa Ditch No. 1 with the 65 middle school students, discussing the 97 diversions between the Platoro Reservoir and where they were standing. “In the river, it doesn’t matter where you are,” Coombs said. “It’s all about your number.”
He added, “In water, we never use the word fair. It is not part of the vocabulary.”
After detailing how the rivers in Colorado deliver water to seven states, Rio Grande Compact obligations and how it takes 44 hours in a raft to float on the Conejos River from the reservoir to Las Sauces, the students couldn’t stop asking questions and volunteering answers.
Water leaders like Coombs make these experiential lessons an option for Valley teachers with help from interested classroom teachers and environmental educators like the Rio Grande Water Conservation Education Initiative (RGWCEI) specialist Judy Lopez.
“This gives the students a real life connection,” said Conejos science teacher Andrew Shelton while watching his students turn on to their natural environment this fall. “This is a farming community , and it really hits home with them.”
RGWCEI works with the Valley’s conservation districts , school districts, community members and producers with a goal to create an educated populous that not only respects the Valley’s natural resources, but also understands the big part agriculture plays in conserving those resources, Lopez said.
“Not only are they getting lectures, but hands on experience that will ultimately build an intrinsic value system,” she said. “Science today tends to be taught within the context of labs and boxes. These experiences create problem solvers.”
About 85 percent of Valley students either stay here or return after college, she added, making natural resources lessons during younger years much more important .
“The youth are going to value the Valley more,” Lopez said. “They will be responsive to the natural resources as citizens, parents and families.” Students of all kinds Natural resource education in the Valley isn’t limited to the K-12 classroom. Last spring, the Rio Grande Leaders Course graduated a number of locals looking to understand and protect the Valley’s water. The Rio Grande Water Conservation District (RGWCD), San Luis Valley Water Conservancy District (SLVWCD), Rio Grande Headwaters Restoration Project (RGHRP) and RGWCEI sponsored course provided 25 community members the opportunity to engage in education and networking to prepare to take a future role in safeguarding , developing and managing the Valley’s water resources. It included information on Valley hydrology, water rights administration, notable court cases, current events and local partners and projects. Course attendees included young farmers, federal agency employees and other interested individuals , making for interesting dialogue and numerous perspectives on water use.
“It opened my eyes,” said Aliesha Carpenter, originally from La Jara and now married to a fourth generation Center potato farmer during the course’s closing ceremonies in March. “It wasn’t just about agriculture. It was about wildlife, the Sand Dunes and life for people. Without it, our agricultural economy would disintegrate. There needs to be a younger generation in agriculture.” Bureau of Land Management (BLM) assistant field manager Paul Tigan added, “I think the course helped with the understanding of the long term context of water management in the Valley. Federal employees have a tendency to come into a place, stay for a few years and then move on. This is a good opportunity to develop a context and to understand .”
RGWCEI is also reaching out to education professionals through its annual teachers workshop series. The series, now in its seventh year, offers educators from all backgrounds the opportunity to learn how to teach in the outdoors and from the outdoors. It includes a one-week experiential learning course annually over a three-year timeframe. The series is broken into three sectors: From Watershed to Cup Year One: Following Water Through the “Creekulum;” From Watershed to Sustainability Year Two: Building a “Stream” of Consciousness; and From Watershed to Table Year Three: Following Water Down the Food Chain. The series is based out of the Trinchera Ranch in Fort Garland, but uses the entire Valley as its classroom.
“It’s a way for teachers to reconnect,” Lopez said. “They learn how to teach in the outdoors, and it gives them a background. A teacher’s biggest fear is that they don’t know enough. They get to be on the ground with natural resource specialists and leave with hands on lessons , creating more confident educators.”
Completion results in three graduate credits, an extensive education in the Valley’s natural resources and their systems and the ability to build natural resources-based activities through the K-12 Project Wet curriculum, an outdoor environmental education tool. State supported initiative
In May 2010, the Colorado Kids Outdoors Grant Program Legislation, HB10-1131 was signed into law, recognizing the importance of the outdoor environment on the health of the state’s residents, especially youth.
It aims to prepare students to address present and future environmental challenges and innovations that impact quality of life, according to the Colorado Department of Education (CDE) Colorado Environmental Education Plan (CEEP) published in 2012. Colorado’s environment , economy and communities depend on informed citizens who can make decisions about air and water quality; the health of farms, ranches, forests and wildlife; how to meet energy and other resource needs; how to create and sustain healthy communities; and how to provide opportunities for residents to partake in the state’s natural beauty while protecting it for future generations.
In 2011, a partnership was born between CDE and the Colorado Department of Natural Resources (DNR) to write CEEP, and to foster awareness needed to promote, coordinate and sustain standards-based environmental education across the state.
The plan is designed to support implementation of the Colorado Academic Standards while developing students’ knowledge and skills related to the environment and getting students to spend more time outside, according to CEEP. The timing of this plan is advantageous as districts, schools and teachers are revising curricula and improving instructional practices to address the strategic imperative of developing all students’ postsecondary workforce readiness. Its strategies support teachers in addition to encouraging the integration of high quality environmental education opportunities and use of the outdoors in ways that are relevant, connected and meaningful for their students.