Nonprofit Teaches Future Generations the Value of Water

May 26, 2021

This article originally appeared in Water Quality Products magazine February 2020 issue as "Planting Seeds"

About the author:

Lauren Del Ciello is managing editor for WQP. Del Ciello can be reached at [email protected].


When did you learn the value of water? Was it a value instilled in you growing up or did you learn it by being confronted with a lack? Maybe you learned it through a drought or water main break, or maybe you learned it in a classroom.

One nonprofit, Project WET Foundation, is working to build a world where today’s children and tomorrow’s leaders fundamentally understand the value of water and can work together to create solutions to future water challenges. Project WET, which stands for Water Education for Teachers, provides tools to teachers and community members that bring hands on water resource education to children not just nationally, but globally.

Water Education for Teachers

Its mission is simple: to reach children, parents, teachers and community members of the world with water education that promotes awareness of water and empowers community action to solve complex water issues. To reach this mission, the organization publishes water resource education materials, provides training workshops and events, and develops a network of educators and experts to expand its message. 

The foundation was developed in 1984 by Dennis Nelson and has since come a long way. Nelson grew up on a dry land farm in North Dakota and was impacted by water resource concerns from a young age. His family farm often did not have water, but just down the road his grandparents’ farm had a surplus of water because of glacial moraines.

“He was always interested in this and thought that if he had known about the water resources as a kid, it might have made more sense to him,” said Nicole Rosenleaf Ritter, vice president of communications for Project WET Foundation. “And so he started to look at ways to teach kids, especially about water resources, in a way that would make sense to them. That’s really our focus as an organization is communicating information about water to audiences in a way that’s not technical but friendly.”

What started as a small water resource education program in North Dakota rapidly grew to what it is today. Now, Project WET works in all 50 U.S. states and works in approximately 75 countries through its partners. While the organization was initially funded by the U.S. government through the Bureau of Reclamation and the North Dakota Water Resources Agency, partnerships have been essential to the organization’s growth, particularly internationally. Current corporate partners include Ecolab, Levi’s and Nestle Waters, among others. These relationships have been important in expanding the organization’s international footprint, Rosenleaf Ritter said.

Internationally, Project WET Japan was one of the organization’s first international partners. The Japanese branch has translated the program’s curriculum activity guides into Japanese and train thousands of educators each year who in turn teach the next generation about water resource management. Regardless of the location, however, Project WET’s mission remains unwavering.

“We seek to solve water problems by educating the world about water,” Rosenleaf Ritter said. “And it’s a big mission, but it is one that we think is vital because if people don’t understand what a resource is, like a young Dennis Nelson in North Dakota, then they cannot work to address the problems that exist out there.” 

Local Partners & Arizona Project WET

The main headquarters of Project WET, now based in Montana, works to develop educational materials and support its national and international network. However, educators must volunteer for training and to access educational tools, so the teams that run the individual local programs work tirelessly in their communities to spread the word and reach educators directly. One of those local programs is also one of the oldest branches of Project WET – Arizona Project WET. 

It makes sense that Arizona – along with Montana and Idaho – was among the first communities to adopt the program. The Southwestern state has struggled with drought and water scarcity concerns for years, and consequently, water industry leaders and researchers throughout the state are often spearheading innovative water reuse technologies. Arizona Project WET works in tandem with that mission to provide educational resources to teachers and students regarding water efficiency, management and reuse.

“We do two things through three pathways and those two things are water stewardship, which is really all inclusive types of water education, connections to energy, wastewater and storm water,” said Kerry Schwartz, director for Arizona Project WET and faculty member in the environmental science department at the University of Arizona. “And then the other part of our mission is STEM literacy and what we mean by that is real world and relevant education. That is about an integrated way of thinking.”

Arizona Project WET values hands-on learning, as demonstrated through its School Water Audit Program. The program was pilot tested in 2009 and published online in 2011, according to the program’s website. The program encourages students to measure the flow rate of faucets with and without aerators at their schools. Next, the students install water efficient aerators down to 0.5 gpm. Then, they return to the classroom and calculate the volume of water used in both circumstances based off of how many people use the fixtures, how long each use averages and how many times a day it is used. In this way, they are able to calculate the projected water savings provided by the water efficient aerators, Schwartz said. The water audit program is designed for middle school students and requires teachers who have completed professional development programs through Arizona Project WET to lead the program. After the program, students can take that knowledge home to their families and potentially initiate water efficiency conversations at home.

Making Water Fun: Water Festival Program

Arizona Project WET’s oldest and most well known program is the Arizona Water Festival. It started in 2000 with a pass-through grant for $3,000 from the Project WET Foundation. Now approaching its 20th anniversary, the festival highlights Arizona Project WET’s mission to teach resourceful water management and conservation in a hands-on setting. 

“We teach them to facilitate through exploration and inquiry,” Schwartz said. “So learn about watershed, the water cycle, groundwater and water conservation technology. Each student at the festival goes through a half hour hands-on lesson about those four topics.”

Overall, the festival reaches approximately 1,000 students in a day. Twenty festivals with an average of 1,000 students adds up quickly, Schwartz stressed. While the program touches on the four topics mentioned above, it also looks at the water cycle holistically.

“We have that ‘one water’ frame,” Schwartz said. “And so in order to even care about something like water conservation, people have to understand where their water comes from and what the issues are around it.”

For Schwartz, the most rewarding part of working with Arizona Project WET is when students are working on the school water audit program and you can “watch the light bulb go on” when they see how much they can save just by their own actions. 

Lessons Learned

Today’s students are the leaders, innovators and problem solvers of tomorrow. Project WET works to reach students with its hands-on lessons regarding the value of water and the need for increased water efficiencies and smart water management. You can do the same in your own community by starting conversations with those around you and accessing Project WET’s educational tools online because, after all, we all have a responsibility to manage our world’s resources effectively and efficiently.

“We believe in water for all water users, whether those are industrial, agricultural, people who live in cities – everyone has a right to use water,” Rosenleaf Ritter said. “That means that everybody has a responsibility to be a water manager in their own lives.”