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Teaching the value of water

As a teen, I had a project I worked on teaching elementary students about the Earth’s water system.

I lugged around a fish tank that had been made into a cross-section water table diorama. There were different layers of sand, clay and soil to represent layers of the Earth’s terra firma. There were wells and aquifers of different depths, and a stream on one end.

I would sprinkle water from above to simulate rain and dropped dye to simulate a pollution spill.

Students watched to see how the water dispersed and leached through the layers. Eyes widened as the pollution infiltrated the aquifers, contaminated the drinking wells and eventually reached the stream.

Next, each group was responsible for creating a community on a piece of poster board. Each community had a river running through the middle and had to include housing, a factory, and farmlands.

Each and every group always put their residential housing up stream, and the factory and farmland downstream. When asked why, the answer was always, “So the runoff from spraying crops or the chemicals from the factory flows downstream and doesn’t contaminate the drinking water for the houses.”

The logic was understandable.

At that point, the groups were directed to put their communities on the floor and link the rivers. That usually led to a bit of surprise. The factory that was so painstakingly placed downriver from housing was now directly upriver from the next community, illustrating the basic importance of working together to protect our water resources.

It isn’t just about us. What we are doing in our back yard is step one. Understanding what others are doing and how things can be better is the next step.

Earth’s water system is a closed system. Surface water evaporates into the air and later comes back down as rain. Plants and trees transpire and clouds release it back as rain or snow. Water is drawn into a home through a well or municipal system for drinking, washing, and growing vegetables. The cycle goes round and round; always with the same water.

When water filters through the ground, layers of soil work to clean it, to some degree. Sometimes, contamination sticks, as we are currently experiencing with per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, also known as PFAS.

And we’re talking about the entire planet here, not just what is occurring in the U.S. What Canada does affects our water supply. What happens on the continent of Africa affects the water supply to varying degrees.

Water connects us all.

Last month, I attended the U.S. One Water Summit in Austin, Texas. The summit seeks to bring various stakeholders from around the nation together in one location to discuss issues facing our water resources and collaborate for positive change.

I was invited to attend as part of the Smaller Cities and Towns delegation. Our job was to engage in discussion, share challenges, projects, and solutions. There are still communities in the U.S. that do not have reliable drinking water, or even indoor plumbing. Some major metropolitan areas struggle with managing storm water runoff on one end of the spectrum, and/or drought on the other. Some states have water policies in place. Residents in Denver, Colorado are not allowed to collect rainwater. While some think that is preposterous, the reasoning behind it is that neighboring desert states need the rain that falls in Colorado to enter the water system so it feeds their state.

Many debates occur disputing policy, but one thing is for sure: Here in Michigan, we literally trip over fresh water with all of our lakes, rivers, streams, and ponds. We rarely worry about not having enough water. With a large proportion of the world’s freshwater supply at our back door, it is our responsibility to take care of it and protect it from activities that may be damaging.

Without water, we don’t survive. We’ll die within days, and plants and animals will perish. How can we improve the value we place on water resources? A good starting point might be to imagine one day without water.

On Wednesday, communities, schools, businesses, and organizations will Imagine A Day Without Water. The campaign seeks to introduce people to the realities of life without access to clean water, and inspires compassion for celebrating what we do have. You can learn more on their website: imagineadaywithoutwater.org.

I invite everyone to consider how your life would change if your fresh water supply was compromised by contamination or mismanagement. Then, think about how you value water.

I’d like to hear from you. If you would like to send in a photo, short essay, poem, or other creative piece that shares the positive value of our water resources, I would love to share it. Email me at marybeth@visitalpena.com.

Let’s consider how we can go from water users, to water caretakers.

Mary Beth Stutzman’s “Inspiring A-Town” runs monthly. Follow Mary Beth on Twitter @mbstutz.