I wasn’t involved in politics in the late 1980s other than voting—which is indeed a very important thing! However, in November 1989, when I was leaving North Dakota to bring a new water education program to Montana State University, I suddenly discovered how dramatically politics could affect me and my work. It wouldn’t be a stretch to say that the election of George Herbert Walker Bush as our 41st President—and, by extension, his selection of Federal agency appointees—enabled Project WET to become the organization it is today.
Although all Federal agency appointees are crucial, the Secretary of the U.S. Department of Interior was, at that time, very important to Project WET. We were receiving support from the Bureau of Reclamation’s regional offices, which the Interior Department oversees. President Bush appointed New Mexico Congressman Manuel Lujan Jr. to be the Secretary of the Interior, and then Secretary Lujan appointed Dennis Underwood to be the new Commissioner of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation (BOR). Commissioner Underwood then selected Dee Kuhn, a former educator, to be his Chief of Public Affairs.
While all the appointments were in process, we were making significant progress expanding Project WET in a pilot focusing on Montana, Idaho and Arizona. (Our original name when established on the Montana State University campus was The Western WaterCourse, later shortened to The WaterCourse.) The BOR regional offices helped us make contacts in the states and provided a small amount of funding—our entire budget in 1990 was around $65,000! We used the money to prove to the BOR and our local partners that Project WET was relevant to each state and could be replicated.
The success of the pilot attracted attention from regional BOR directors and staff, and we were asked to develop a proposal for expanding Project WET to all 50 U.S. states. Roger Patterson, BOR’s Great Plains Regional Director, and John Keys III of the Pacific Northwest Region helped us develop and review the proposal, which they then endorsed. This process cleared the way for a meeting with the U.S. BOR’s office in Washington, D.C. We met with Dee Kuhn to explain Project WET and its relevance to BOR priorities. Immediately recognizing the great value of a nationally relevant water education program for children and youth, Dee said she would investigate further and get back to me.
The invitation to meet with Commissioner Dennis Underwood was extended shortly after that, and I returned to D.C. for what turned out to one of the most important days in Project WET’s history. Following a brief presentation on Project WET and our plans to expand from the three-state pilot to all 50 states, Commissioner Underwood asked Dee directly, “Is this a good program?” Without hesitation, Dee said yes. The commissioner nodded and said the BOR would fund it.
Commissioner Underwood’s nod resulted in a multi-year grant of nearly a million dollars. The grant fully funded the publication of the first Project WET Curriculum and Activity Guide and the establishment of the Project WET USA Network. The stage was set for the national implementation of Project WET. Commissioner Underwood then requested that we have lunch with Secretary Lujan in his private dining room. Over a great lunch, we talked water and the importance of water education. It was truly an unforgettable day, brought about by appointees of the Bush Administration.
Fast-forwarding a couple of years, I confess that my staff and I were too busy working on the national implementation of Project WET to pay much attention to the election of 1992. When President Bush lost to Bill Clinton, it hit me like a bolt of lightning that politics would again impact Project WET. In a matter of months, all the appointed officials we were working with within the Department of Interior, and specifically in the BOR, were replaced as the administration turned over.
In 1994, I was in the new Commissioner’s office with high hopes for continued support from the BOR. In the same chair I had sat in three years earlier, I looked forward to meeting the new commissioner and staff. This time, I had the new, hot-off-the-press Project WET Curriculum and Activity Guide in my hand. With great pride, I distributed copies to the Commissioner and his staff. Almost simultaneously, everyone in the room looked at the credits page and saw that the BOR officials of the previous administration had endorsed and funded Project WET. The Commissioner’s eyes relayed the message without saying a word, and I knew our funding was in jeopardy. I didn’t know how bad it would be until I read the letter from the Commissioner saying the BOR would cut all funding to Project WET. That was another unforgettable day, but not in a good way.
Today, I am less politically naïve and more experienced in the unpredictability of Federal funding and changing administrations. Thankfully, Project WET had other grants and contracts to support its core staff, and the Project WET USA network was ready for implementation. We not only survived, but flourished, and this is a testament to the quality of our collective work.
Since President Bush’s death, I have heard a lot of commentaries about his legacy. Many have focused on his record of service, from World War II to the CIA to Congress to the Presidency. Others have looked at his role in passing the Americans With Disabilities Act, his leadership during the response to the invasion of Kuwait and his steady hand following the fall of Communism in Eastern Europe.
Citizens, journalists and historians will determine how George H. W. Bush will ultimately be viewed. As for me, I will remember our 41st President as the leader whose appointees enabled the launch of Project WET and brought interactive water education to all 50 U.S. states and around the world. For that, I will always be grateful.
Dennis Nelson is the president and CEO of the Project WET Foundation. Dennis founded Project WET in 1984 while working at the North Dakota State Water Commission. Through extensive partnerships and successful fundraising efforts, he has developed the program into a global leader in water resources education.