Water Is Everywhere, Why Care to Conserve?


I’ve been researching water and sustainability the last few days and much of what’s out there is intuitive. Fix leaks, take shorter showers, run only full loads of dishes and laundry, and try to minimize how much you water driveways and other paved areas (i.e. make sure sprinklers only cover vegetation). These are all examples of the how in the quest for water conservation, and they are all very doable changes. However, without a compelling case for why we should conserve water, making any lasting changes to status quo of water (over) consumption would be nothing short of a miracle.

People generally want to know what they are doing is making a difference. To know it matters—if not personally, then to someone (or thing) somewhere at some point in time. Why else bother breaking away from what’s comfortable? Even those who try not to live beyond their means because It’s the right thing to do, do so because they understands it matters in some way. But doing the right thing in water conservation for some people can compete with the right thing in other areas of their lives. This creates conflict, which makes the right thing less straightforward. How can we ask the family struggling to put food on the table to step back and focus on water conservation?

Before diving into equity complexities, let me begin with why water needs conserving in the first place. With about 332,500,000 mi3 (1,386,000,000 km3) of water on earth, it’s hard to imagine running out of water. The amount of water on earth is more or less constant—such a minute amount makes it to space that there’s no point including it in analyses. In this sense, we will never run out of water. The issue with water availability thus lies not within the total amount of water on earth, but within the amount of fresh water in forms available for use by humans and other species.

An image from the United States Geological Survey (USGS) depicting the amount of water on, in, and above earth recently went around both the Bren School of Environmental Science & Management and the Project WET Foundation.

Global Water Volume

Image credit: Howard Perlman, USGS; globe illustration by Jack Cook, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (©); Adam Nieman.

It amounts to this: if all the water from our planet was gathered and balled up, the 332,500,000 mi3 (1,386,000,000 km3) of water would cower next to the size of earth itself. The biggest water sphere on this image represents everything—all water, including ocean, water vapor, lakes, rivers, icecaps, glaciers, aquifers, soil moisture, and even the water in our bodies and those of every living thing. The middle sphere depicts the fresh liquid water in the ground, lakes, swamps, and rivers. This 2,551,100 mi3 (10,633,450 km3) of water is 99 percent groundwater, much of which is unavailable for human use. Finally, the barely noticeable sphere hovering over Georgia illustrates water from the world’s fresh-water lakes and rivers. This last 22,339 mi3 (93,113 km3) sphere is notable because the majority of people and life on earth get their daily water needs from these surface-water sources. (note: these are spheres, so even though it is tempting to compare their sizes to states and countries, doing so would be inaccurate and over-exaggerate how small the spheres are. States and countries are flat, but the water spheres have depth).

Even as a water resources management graduate student, this USGS image is sobering. The water connecting every living being—and every being that ever lived—is also something most of us take for granted. It’s true all that water will always be on earth. The water cycle sees to that, in all it’s sweeping complexity and constant transformation. But that also means earth will not increase it’s water supply either. The amount is fixed. And we as humans can perturb the cycle. We can pollute our finite supply of fresh water. We can extract it faster than nature can replenish it and cause imbalance in the cycle such that available water shifts into unusable stored sources. We can cause the climate to change and consequently alter where, when, and how much water is available for people to use—and research (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, and many more) suggests the areas most vulnerable and likely to experience the greatest impacts are also the ones least responsible for the changes and the ones least in a position to adapt. But we can also choose a different path and change the status quo.

Education and awareness provide the foundation upon which change is built. Without it, we wouldn’t know a change was needed in the first place, nor would we know how or what to change. Project WET and other education and outreach organizations are vigorously and passionately working to fill the knowledge gap. For Project WET, that means teacher and child education and training through a plethora of outlets. It also means recognizing we live in a world full of diverse people, cultures, backgrounds, standards of livings, and expectations. One method of water conservation—say, turning on sprinklers in early morning or late evening to minimize evaporation and maximize infiltration—might work well for some and be completely arbitrary for others (compare a sprinkler-happy country club to a rural Ugandan village).

Washing Hands

Image credit: Project WET Foundation

Effective education will lead to positive change when it speaks to people’s circumstance. Learning when and how to wash hands can be the difference between healthy living and disease for some, so it is important there to make that the focus of water. Capturing precipitation in a rain barrel and using it to water a garden can be the difference in improving the quality of life of inner city children, so it is important there to make that the focus of water education.

The answer to the why in water conservation is different for each individual. In some cases, the when might vary as well. But one constant across all walks of life is the thirst and need for knowledge. And when that knowledge empowers people to act, the first step towards change is taken.

“A little knowledge that acts is worth infinitely more than much knowledge that is idle.”—Khalil Gibran



First Generation iMac

Personal computers were just becoming more widely available to the public when I was in elementary school. At home, my brothers and I were addicted to playing a fire truck-cat game we had on our clunker of a PC. In middle school, our computer lab got the hip upgrade to first generation iMacs. Those gumdrop shaped and colored computers from the late 90s were mesmerizing, even if their function left something to be desired. Their games were of course restricted by the school’s network administrator. A computer game could only be a distraction, certainly not educational, right?

Fast forward a little over a decade and we have Discover Water: The Project WET Foundation’s online site dedicated to educating students about our most precious natural resource. I’ve explored Discover Water quite a bit and am confident that if it were available on those first generation iMacs back in middle school, teachers and administrators would have eagerly promoted the science-based website and the multitude of games and activities it offers as an exception to the computer game ban.

Educators today would (and do) feel the same. The Discover Water pilot involved 59 teachers and 3,746 students from schools across the United States. The site covers water-related topics ranging from the water cycle and oceans to wise water use and watersheds. Each topic includes fun games and activities, an approach to learning known as “gamification education.” Discover Water—and all of Project WET’s materials—represent a shift in our approach to education.

Discover Water

Young people today are increasingly raised in a bubble of 21st century technology and we would be doing future generations a great disservice if our educational systems remained stuck in the 20th Century. I’m hard-pressed to come up with a profession that does not use technology directly or indirectly, but I can think of many examples of educators embracing technology to relate with and encourage their students. For brevity, I focus on one shining example: my high school AP biology teacher.

Biohazard 5

Bozeman High School’s Paul Andersen is one of the most fun and interactive teachers I’ve been fortunate enough to have in school. Last year, he was Montana’s 2011 Teacher of the Year and made it to the top four finalists for the National Teacher of the Year award. The zig to his zag? Andersen used Moodle to transform his Bozeman High School science classroom into “Biohazard 5,” an alternate reality game (ARG) consisting of video podcasts, hundreds of science questions and quizzes, fun activities, and levels with points leading to high scorers and grades. Andersen’s YouTube channel, BozemanBiology, is also a hit, with over 200 videos and more than 4 million channel views.

On his website, Andersen points out how traditional classrooms keep every student at the same level. This prevents exceptional students from learning more (boring) and leaves students that need more time to master material behind (frustrating). Biohazard 5, however, allowed students to learn at their own pace and tap into their full potential. Incorporating technology into education presents a whole new set of challenges, of course, but that is not an excuse for ignoring the role of technology in the lives of today’s and tomorrow’s young people.

Which brings me back to Project WET’s Discover Water. Like Andersen’s classroom leveling system, Project WET plans to add a badge system to the website so students and teachers can acquire and document learning in an individualized, self-paced manner. Early this year, Discover Water made it to the third level in the Digital Media and Learning, Badges for Lifelong Learning competition sponsored by the MacArthur Foundation. The primary goal of Discover Water’s badge system is to give players—whether in a formal classroom setting or learning just for fun—credit for their efforts and a sense of accomplishment.

Both Discover Water and Biohazard 5 stand as success stories where education standards and technology can merge and teachers are afforded new ways to access student learning.

The Cabin

This past weekend combined a couple of my favorite pastimes: family and photography. My aunt and uncle built a cabin on a 20 acre lot outside of White Sulfur Springs, MT, and the Tilleman family and friends love spending time out there. The cabin and landscape are both beautiful, which makes it a natural choice location for my cousin’s senior photos. Because “a photo is worth 1000 words,” I will let the images below support my claim. More photos from the weekend can be found here. I will add my favorite senior photos of my cousin once I am done editing them!

The Cabin

BBQ Bird Nest

Little Butterfly

You Think My Tractor's...

Education is Life

“Education is not preparation for life; education is life itself.”


I came across this quote from 20th-century American education theorist John Dewey in my research regarding education standards. I have already heard multiple references to different education approaches this summer, including a few that particularly stand out in regard to teaching and evaluating student learning: Common Core Standards, Next Generation Science Standards, and Project-Based Learning.

Both the Common Core Standards and the Next Generation Science Standards amount to state-led efforts to provide clear and consistent frameworks for evaluating teaching and student learning in preparation for entry into college and the workforce. Common Core Standards cover only English-language arts and math, while the Next Generation Science Standards focus on science and engineering. Together, the standards can be thought of as the “what” in education.

Conversely, Project-Based Learning can been seen as an option for “how” to achieve the “what.” Project-Based Learning provides structure for in-class experience-based learning teaching techniques—put simply, it is learning by doing. With roots in the work of experience-based learning pioneers John Dewey, Maria Montessori, and Jean Piaget, Project-Based Learning seeks to put students at the forefront of their own learning.

In my research, I could not help but admire the work that the Project WET Foundation has done to reach the forefront of innovative education content, skill, and process. Project WET emphasizes process- and science-based approaches to learning about water. This is exemplified well in our up-coming Kids In Discovery series (KIDs) activity booklet on Urban Waters. The Urban Waters KIDs book has been on Project WET’s agenda for a few years now, but the 2008 recession halted its development due to lack of available funding. However, it did not take long for Project WET President and CEO, Dennis Nelson to recognize my summer internship as an opportunity to revisit the Urban Waters KIDs book. Although it tends to take about a year from the start of a KIDs book to its first publication, the thought is for me to work on “getting the ball rolling” on the publication. And I am thrilled to be working on it!

So what will a KIDs book on Urban Waters look like? The goal of the publication is to provide young people with a source of insight and inspiration regarding water management in a city. With this in mind, Dennis provided me with a list of preliminary topics the book could cover, a blank 16-page booklet, and a green light to begin brainstorming. I was pleased to discover Project WET tends to do visual brainstorming and outlining, so for the past few days I have been alternating between research and sketching potential spreads for an Urban Waters KIDs book. Topics range from a city’s water address and source water, to water recycling and municipal water challenges.


I’ve also enjoyed sketching ideas for the layouts of the cover and different spreads. Each spread spans two adjacent pages in the booklet and covers a single over-arching topic. So far, I have a rough cover image and spread for an urban waters historical timeline, water users in the city, and the urban water cycle. Although Project WET’s illustrator will take care of the imagery in the actual KIDs booklet, it does help to have a rough visual from the start to spark discussion about the basic concepts and flow between topics and spreads.

My undergraduate thesis for Oregon State’s University Honors College focused on early childhood environmental education. Thus, it has not come as a surprise to me that putting together a KIDs book is nowhere near as simple and easy as it may seem at first glance. Not only do KIDs books cover in-depth scientific knowledge about all things water, they do so in a way accessible to young people and accompanied by demonstrative illustrations and activities. To put something scientific at the reading and comprehension level of an 8-12 year old means the writer must thoroughly understand the topic themselves, from the most basic underlying assumptions to the general concepts and specific details. It almost makes writing a book for adults seem like a simple and easy alternative!

P.S. The images in this post are from Hyalite Reservoir, where my family and friends spent the 4th of July weekend!

A Happy Independence Day!


This is to everything we have to be proud of, thankful for, and stand up for in this country. Sometimes the reasons we do things are lost in the mayhem of celebration, but there are some traditions that never fail to touch me. This Independence Day my entire family is together—my older brother landed here from Burbank just this afternoon—and we had dinner with each other, our extended family, and close friends. Of course there are fireworks bursting in every direction outside; homemade (crust and all) apple and strawberry-rhubarb pies in the kitchen; one of my grandmothers dancing and ‘conducting’ the symphony on ‘A Capitol Fourth’ in the living room while my other grandmother sneaks a bite of every dessert (if it’s just a bite it doesn’t break a diet, right?); two guitars and a banjo jammin’ on the back porch as the ‘adults’ stand by and try to figure out the camcorder so they can capture it all on video; and, through everything, enough laughter and good spirits to make a camcorder unnecessary to ingrain this in our memories.

We have so many things to be proud of, thankful for, and stand up for in this country. Let us not forget this when we begin to trip up on the small things.