Student researchers tackle complex water issues at Youth Water Summit
Last month, students from across the Roaring Fork Valley gathered to discuss water. At the first-ever Youth Water Summit, teenagers presented their own white papers on everything from water rights to environmental activism.
On a mid-morning about a month ago, researchers gathered to discuss pressing water issues at the Third Street Center in Carbondale. They are young, energetic and passionate about their subject areas.
“In the riparian habitat, there's vegetation, there's plants, there’s animals, and all those help the ecosystem thrive,” a young researcher explained.
Will Hassel is a seventh grader at Glenwood Springs Middle School. But he’s here as an expert on Two Rivers Park in Glenwood Springs, where the Roaring Fork meets the Colorado.
“There needs to be safer access to the river,” he told a classmate.
A plan to revitalize the area is in the works, and Hassel and his classmates have ideas about what should happen. They want to protect the riparian habitat and ensure that people can safely play in the water. They were one of 15 student groups who presented at the Youth Water Summit.
Pitkin County’s Healthy Rivers and Streams Board sponsored the event, and hired Sarah Johnson of Wild Rose Education to organize it.
"We want these kids to have a stronger water ethic, and a stronger sense of water literacy and river literacy, you might say," Johnson explained.
Students from local middle and high schools studied issues related to water management across the west at the summit. They learned from water experts and posed their own big questions: What are the effects of the Colorado River running dry? How are art, literature and film used for water activism?
“Watershed issues are not science issues by themselves, they're very interdisciplinary, whole picture, watershed-wide problems – or opportunities," Johnson said.
The kids spent months researching the context and the consequences of their chosen topics and presented their findings to classmates. This runs the gamut, as students explore the scarcity of fresh water, the ways graffiti have represented public opinion on dams and how much water is used for agriculture in the arid west.
And, often, these findings lead to more questions.
“Why would you plant plants in the desert when you could plant them in better places?” Oleanna Jacobson, a student at the Aspen Country Day School, asked.
The audience for this exchange is fellow students, but it also includes policymakers and experts from the Colorado River District, the City of Aspen, the Roaring Fork Conservancy and Healthy Rivers and Streams.
“The idea was for everyone to mingle on kind of an equal basis so the kids could interact with water professionals," said Lisa Tasker, chair of the Pitkin County Healthy Rivers and Streams Board.
Tasker said part of the goal is to encourage students to acknowledge the roles they play in the complex world of water management. For example, the Colorado Rocky Mountain School owns a water right on the Crystal River.
“They actually irrigate some fields on their property, and so they are part of the diversion system,” Tasker explained.
The event allowed kids to consider current issues in their own backyards and the bigger picture of water policy across the west. Tasker was particularly impressed with a presentation on the 1922 Colorado River Compact, which governs water rights in seven seven states across the west.
“I mean, they’re starting to get into the weeds just like we do,” Tasker said, laughing. “And good for them, because maybe they can help us get out.”
As the day neared completion, kids trudged out of the presentations wide-eyed and a little dazed. But the adults in the room were all smiles.
“These kids definitely give me a lot of hope,” Tasker said. “And, me personally, I’m looking for hope.”
Tasker and Johnson hope that this event was just the start for these students. After all, there’s no shortage of water issues to discuss in coming years.