By Dennis Nelson
Editor’s note: Project WET founder Dennis Nelson recently announced that he is retiring as President and CEO of the Project WET Foundation. After more than 35 years in water education, he is writing a series of articles reflecting on the people, places and experiences that have made Project WET an outstanding program.
The seeds for Project WET were sown in North Dakota. Specifically, the North Dakota State Water Commission’s Planning Division (SWC) and Project WET’s origins are directly linked to a statewide water planning process and State Water Plan. Agency leaders viewed public water education as an important adjunct to the planning process and knew that informed and educated people are more likely to get involved, contribute and make informed decisions.
Apparently, at some regional public input meetings, a few vocal individuals and groups had been presenting information and points of view that were not hydrologically accurate. This frustrated SWC staff. They knew that incorrect information could impact the Water Plan process. Remember, in the mid-1980s there was not yet any social media. Email was emerging but not widespread, and the Internet itself was a few years down the road. The loudest and most persistent voices at public meetings got attention and, in their own way, educated people.
North Dakota’s Water Plan is published every 10 years. Based on state law, the Water Plan involves a great deal of input from diverse water stakeholders. North Dakota, like all other states, takes water development, management and protection seriously. Water opportunities and challenges abound. Investing limited public funds must focus on high-priority, high-value projects.
The Water Plan helps focus decision making and spending. Water and water management are so important that the North Dakota governor chairs the State Water Commission. An appointed group of commissioners make decisions on state water projects, investments and governance. The governor, commissioners, state engineer, staff and water advocates like the North Dakota Water Users Association tackle topics such as wetlands, water distribution and allocation, drainage, recreation, up and downstream river basin conflicts, research and data collection, construction projects, drought and flooding. In every situation, public input is essential to planning and decision-making and public education plays a role.
I didn’t have many meetings with Vern Fahy, who was the state engineer when I worked at the SWC. However, one memorable meeting with him has guided and impacted my approach to water education to this day. Vern was an icon in North Dakota water management. A veteran engineer and administrator, Vern was a no-nonsense, highly respected agency leader. When Vern gave guidance, people listened. They knew he spoke based on decades of experience.
The meeting we had was to get acquainted and to allow Vern an opportunity to give me guidance on developing a water education program. Vern’s message was clear, and I took it to heart: “No PR for the agency.” Instead, he advised, focus entirely on helping people understand North Dakota’s water resources and use the wealth of talent and information in the agency to do it. “How can I say people don’t understand water topics like groundwater when I know my agency, the state’s leading water agency, doesn’t have a formal education program?” Vern asked me.
SWC support for water education was visionary, and the commitment to educating people was real: Vern’s support for water education resonated through the agency. Funds were given to support the research, development and eventually statewide implementation of water education programs. The agency’s newsletter, The Oxbow, was a great vehicle for sharing water content and a way to distribute water factsheets on high-priority water topics. Every aspect of the research and development required input from the agency experts, and they responded.
The first projects proposed included the development of a water history project as SWC’s contribution to North Dakota’s Centennial in 1989. “Liquid Treasure, North Dakota’s Water History” was created and added to the State Historical Society’s Suitcase Exhibit for North Dakota (SEND) program. The trunk included historic stories, photographs and artifacts including a Victory model washboard, a stomper handheld clothes washer, ice card and tongs, water bag and many others.
Another trunk was created to educate people about groundwater. A Groundwater Flow Model, a highly interactive and visual education tool created by the University of Wisconsin Stevens Point, was packaged in an almost indestructible shipping trunk with a few lesson plans and North Dakota-specific groundwater information and then shipped to educators and instructions. The Liquid Treasure and Groundwater Flow Model trunks were used at water events, teacher workshops and in classrooms across the state to help them better understand water resources. I was thrilled one day when an extremely proud grandfather came into my office to tell me that his grandson’s teacher had used the groundwater flow model in his class to help the students understand basic groundwater concepts. The grandson was so excited and interested groundwater he created his own simple model as his entry in a local science fair. I’ve often been asked, what is success? My answer has never changed. I say, without hesitation, every time I hear about a student learning something new about water and then using the information, I am inspired and see genuine success. As a grandfather myself today, that grandfather’s joy, means the world to me.
At the same time, a proposal to develop a water education program for schools was emerging. The North Dakota Forest Service and the Game and Fish Commission had Project Learning Tree (PLT) and Project WILD. Both agencies were actively delivering the national programs to North Dakota teachers. I’m not sure what role the existence of two programs had on the SWC’s decision to support the development of a water education program for North Dakota children, teachers and schools, but I suspect it played a favorable role.
The origins of the name “Project WET” can be traced to a teacher education workshop conducted in Bismarck, sometime in late 1984 or early 1985. During that period, I was using a water resources management simulator—a cutting-edge, electronic, interactive education tool—at workshops. The simulator was used to discuss basic water management topics such as water storage, reservoirs, hydrographs, drought, flooding and, most visually impressive, the interactions between up and downstream users. However, on the day of the Bismarck workshop, while I stood in front of a room of teachers, the electrical device malfunctioned.
Fortunately, work had begun on a few draft lesson plans, and I was able to use two original Project WET activities with the group. The teachers loved them! It was at this teacher workshop that the words “Water Education for Teachers” (WET) emerged, and the Project WET name was created—no think tanks, no extensive research, just one moment of fortunate creativity!
Brenda Weiser, a graphic artist at the SWC, is credited with creating the Project WET logo. I recall sitting around a conference table and asking Commission staff what logo they liked the best. Brenda was an amazing graphic artist and she provided many logo options. Out of a simple selection process and some lobbying, the Project WET logo we’ve used for the past 35 years was selected.
Knowing a name and logo don’t make a credible or viable water education program, a huge amount of staff time was invested in writing activities, testing them with teachers at workshops and rewriting them, not only to get key learning objective across, but to do it through interactive and hands-on teaching methods. The activity development process was far from perfect and there were a few naysayers. Some people called the activities games and others, in moments of arrogance, suggested the ND citizens wouldn’t be interested. Some even suggested the topic was too complicated for laypeople to understand. I didn’t spend much time with these people. Instead, with my SWC colleagues, we created around 20 water science activities, all focused on North Dakota.
These activities plus the Liquid Treasure and Groundwater Flow Model trunks, the Simulator and other SWC resources were used at countless Project WET workshops conducted around the state with our valued partner, Project WILD Aquatic at the ND Game and Fish Department. Dave Jensen was the coordinator of WILD Aquatic at the time, and he provided indispensable guidance and leadership. Dave is a valued friend and lifelong mentor. Project WET was in the early phases of development and implementation, and it was clear based on conducting dozens of local Project WET workshops and the responses from teachers that the program was having impact.
It did take a while to build the confidence of SWC administrators and staff that Project WET was a good program with excellent potential. Agency staff and a cadre of teachers—called facilitators—helped plan and conduct local workshops, successfully delivering water education to thousands of North Dakota teachers. Agency leaders and others started to take notice.
With Project WET gaining momentum and credibility, I was asked to brief the governor and commissioners. To say I was stressed out would be an understatement! I knew I needed reinforcements, so I asked two outstanding teachers and workshop facilitators, Bev Sandness and Ann Hower, to join me. It was one of the best decisions I have ever made. The Groundwater Flow Model and Liquid Treasure trunks were on display and immediately piqued interest in this new venture called Project WET. It seemed like everyone had a water history story to tell. We got off to a good start.
People who know me know that I think every person should know about hydrographs. I opted to have the governor and commissioners do an activity called Back to the Future to learn about hydrographs and stream flow over time. A local river was selected, and I gave instructions on what we were about to do. Each person was asked to use the data to create a hydrograph, and then we would discuss them. Given my love for hydrographs, I thought this would be a simple exercise, but I was mistaken. I could see one or two of the commissioners were having trouble creating the graphs. I was sure they understood hydrographs, but this was likely the first time they had been asked to create one.
In a flash, I realized that if these water leaders didn’t get this right and were not able to create the hydrographs—while also being potentially, publicly embarrassed—there would be trouble. That was an outcome I wanted to avoid at all costs. However, without missing a beat, Bev and Ann knew what was happening, and they took control. Why wouldn’t they? They were master teachers and workshop facilitators.
Ultimately, the Commissioners were great students. They created perfect hydrographs, followed by a lively discussion on each of their graphs, proving to everyone that Project WET was more than a few demonstrations or games. It was a serious water science education program addressing real hydrological topics, all relevant to the people of North Dakota. I am forever grateful to Bev and Ann for rescuing me and making this important presentation a success for everyone!
I am also grateful to every employee, past and present, at the SWC. Their work is incredibly relevant and important, and they make a difference. I would like to give special recognition to division leaders Gene Krenz, David Sprnczynatyk and Milton Lindvig for their leadership and support of Project WET in its formative years. In addition, Planning Division staff Lee Klapprodt, Linda Weispfenning, Larry Knudtson and Melissa Miller, like so many other Commission employees, provided essential guidance, input and support.
In looking back on the SWC’s pioneering work with Project WET, I view the agency’s strategy to combine water experts with educators as a key to Project WET’s success. We wanted scientifically accurate information paired with hands-on, highly interactive and creative teaching methods. We accomplished both in the early development of Project WET in North Dakota—no PR required.
Dennis Nelson founded Project WET in 1984 while working at the North Dakota State Water Commission. Through extensive partnerships and successful fundraising efforts, he developed the program into a global leader in water resources education in more than 70 countries worldwide.