AWRA Water Blog

Water Quality Outreach Program in Denver Pioneers Youth Civic Action for Sustainable Solutions

A Western City Collaborates for Meaningful Water Education, Part 3

by Lydia Hooper

When the Clean Water Act (CWA) came into being in 1972, it was thanks in no small part to the voices of active citizens who scanned the water quality in their neighborhood and took issue with what they saw. Today, some of the CWA’s enforcement involves continuing education and outreach about water quality. While this requirement often isn’t viewed as important as infrastructure, for example, education and outreach have demonstrated potential to be the most sustainable and long-lasting of the efforts to keep America’s waters clean.

A member of Denver's vacuum truck crew explains stormwater management to a group of students.

The CWA seeks to prevent pollutants from entering U.S. waterways, and the EPA is tasked with setting standards and implementing programs in this regard. This can be a challenge in industrial and urban corridors, particularly in the West, where often pollutants are transported through Municipal Separate Storm Sewer Systems (MS4s) directly into local waterbodies – without any sort of treatment. Denver is one of many cities that must develop stormwater management programs to prevent harmful pollutants from entering the MS4. The program for public outreach and education primarily addresses pollution that is not traceable to a single origin (also known as non-point source pollution).

When Denver’s wastewater division began implementing its MS4 programs in 1998, outreach components were limited to brochures inserted into stormwater bills and booths at a few community events. By 2006, the city had created a media campaign to foster general awareness. They decided to use the “Keep It Clean” (KIC) slogan developed for statewide use, but modified it to also include “from drain to stream” based on surveys that revealed that Denver residents were mostly unaware that stormwater does not get treated like household water does.

Keep It Clean Denver presents A Vacuum Truck Demonstration (video)

The KIC campaign also incorporated more targeted grassroots efforts. Denver began to evaluate and use social marketing as a tool for public behavior change. In their efforts to reach out to schools, they partnered with the non-profit Earth Force, using the educational resources they provided and served as occasional classroom speakers for Earth Force educators.

In 2008, this partnership expanded and Earth Force began implementing programming in schools that centered on the campaign’s goals. The Earth Force Process leads students to investigate and complete civic action projects that address issues of concern, in this case, those related to water quality. For example, last school year a group of fourth-graders at Logan School for Creative Learning invited Denver City Council president Mary Beth Susman to come to their class to discuss their concerns about the local Westerly Creek. Susman vowed that she’d use letters that they wrote as comments for forthcoming funding decisions.

In the past five years, both partners have found that by investing in highly meaningful, long-term programming, rather than merely executing one-time events, educational efforts have been more effective and impactful. By establishing relationships with an increasing number of schools, government agencies, and other non-profits, this partnership has greatly expanded the reach of the KIC campaign.

In 2012, KIC reached 682 students through projects at their schools, and 5,040 students through afterschool programs, including almost 4,000 via partner Greenway Foundation’s South Platte River Environmental Education. We also helped 298 young people participate in the World Water Monitoring Challenge.

Read my post next month to find out more about how developing these partnerships and building consensus has helped with the execution of the MS4 outreach outlined above. This blog is the third of a monthly series that offers ideas other cities can consider on addressing water issues through collaboration and creation of exciting educational opportunities.

Lydia Hooper is the “Keep It Clean” Communications Liaison for Denver Public Works’ Wastewater Management-Water Quality Division and Earth Force, a non-profit that fosters community partnerships to support youth engagement in environmental civic action projects nationwide.

One thought on “Water Quality Outreach Program in Denver Pioneers Youth Civic Action for Sustainable Solutions

  1. Martha Narvaez

    Thank you for this entry. As someone working with NPDES permitees and assisting with the education and outreach requirements I find it helpful to hear how other cities in the nation are working on meeting their permit requirements and education goals.

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