This word strikes joy into the hearts of children everywhere. April 19th was no exception. Students from area elementary schools converged on Young Park in Las Cruces for the 7th annual Children’s Water Festival. Even though this particular spring day could have been named “Gone with the Wind” everyone was good sports. Over two dozen community organizations participated, as well as six City departments. This event brings together entities from across the area to teach children all things water related, including conservation, what happens in a flood, how water is used to irrigate crops and water safety. For Elephant Butte Irrigation District, with almost 300 miles of canals and laterals crisscrossing its extensive territory, it is critical that students understand how to treat these open waterways with caution.
Just last summer I stopped to talk water safety facts with a couple siblings swimming in the canal to cool off one scorching summer afternoon. The young girl will remember that day as she was trying to find the cell phone that had fallen out of her pocket when she jumped in. Standing waist deep in the water she held up a soggy old VHS tape she’d scrounged from the bottom of the ditch. Oi! I’m pretty sure her cell phone was a goner. She and her little brother climbed out and slogged back across the field toward home.
From safety measures like staying out of irrigation ditches to common sense water conservation tactics like shutting off the water while you brush your teeth, staff members representing many organizations shared their knowledge with the younger generation. This is time and effort well invested as evidenced by the volunteers’ smiles. While some kids may have just been glad to be out of the classroom for a few hours, many were fascinated by the various water displays, happily asking questions and sharing their own ideas. One young lady described her science fair design for water conservation in pecan orchards. She was interested to learn it’s a valid concept and is already being tried.
EBID staff members Ana Donohue, Naomi Ontiveros, Shelby Downs, Brandon Haynes and Clarence Woods all participated. They are part of the District’s Employee Advisory Committee (EAC), an organization run by EBID employees themselves to give them a voice within the District. Community water education events are one of the functions this group takes on throughout the year.
The EAC team arrived at Young Park at 7 in the morning to set up the water trailer. This teaching tool took many hours to assemble and as Clarence quips, “lots of glue and trips to Hobby Lobby.” The most asked questions are “How long did it take you guys to build this stuff?” and “Did you build this by yourself?” One thrilled boy examined the detailed trailer with water flowing through a model Rio Grande, canals and even dripping from clouds to show the water cycle, and commented, “Oh that’s so cute, tiny!” Another class came through and a curious young man asked in awe, “How did you guys make all this?” Naomi laughs, “A lot of glue!” There seems to be a theme here.
EBID staff took turns speaking with the students, discussing irrigation water and its many benefits helping to produce food and fiber for clothing. They talk about the variety of crops grown in the area, encouraging the kids to think and answer questions about what they’ve observed growing around the valley.
Kids are invariably excited as staff point out the tiny model figure of a man up to his waist in the water in the model irrigation canal. Most recognize the danger and some shout “Oh, no! That’s bad, he shouldn’t be in there!” Staff members rotate giving the presentation and Ana says, “Clarence is a natural at it.” When it’s his turn he too reminds them to never swim in ditches. “If you put a little stick in the water you see how fast it goes, right? Water is very powerful. You can’t see what’s in the bottom of the ditch or river.” He says, “The water is very good for our vegetables and fruit and our trees, but it’s not good for us.” That’s true, there can be potentially dangerous levels of bacteria in the river and irrigation water and of course the treacherous currents and dangerous gates and sluiceways make the irrigation system a terribly dangerous place to play.
Naomi hands out colorful activity books to each class which she created for these types of outreach functions. Across the park staff members from each organization are taking time away from their regular responsibilities. Naomi is EBID Treasurer-Manager Gary Esslinger’s administrative assistant and Ana serves in the engineering department and is a licensed drone operator. Clarence and Brandon serve as ditchriders during the irrigation season, ensuring surface water is delivered to farmers. Shelby is a welder in the District’s fabrication shop, building and repairing metalwork.
Staff explained how the irrigation water travels in the Rio Grande from Colorado all the way down to the ditches and canals we see crisscrossing the valleys. One head smacking response came to Ana’s question “What can we do to save water?” A child responded, “Use less water for the crops.” It’s evident a bit more education is needed as giving crops (i.e. future food and clothing) less water usually either kills them or severely stunts their production of the very thing farmers are trying to raise. A tiny shriveled onion or a field that produces only a couple buckets of chile versus wagon loads won’t help anyone out, much less feed us.
Students take notes at each station as they make their way around the park. Some teachers will have them make posters when they return to class, others will discuss the field trip, asking questions and encouraging them to discuss what they’ve learned. A few classes may even try making their own smaller scale hydrologic models. Probably with lots of glue.
Clarence drives the water conservation home to another class, “If we don’t save our water, no more Halloween pumpkins, no more enchiladas!” This draws a big groan from the students every time he says it.
We may be willing to do without a lot of things, but our enchiladas aren’t one of them.