Students dip their toes into water conservation

Thousands of elementary school students from Costa Mesa, Laguna Beach, Huntington Beach and elsewhere streamed onto the UC Irvine campus Wednesday to get a hands-on education in water conservation.

They were there for the Children's Water Education Festival. The two-day event, billed as the nation's largest of its kind, offers more than 60 free educational activities to children in third through fifth grades. Each activity builds on state curriculum standards in science and other subjects.

Deepening children's understanding of water conservation is crucial as the state enters its fourth year of drought, said Eleanor Torres, director of public affairs for the Orange County Water District, an organizer of the festival, now in its 19th year.

Elementary school students are at a prime age to learn that water conservation "isn't boring stuff," she said. The event also exposes students to careers in science and to a university environment — an experience that might be a first for many of them, she said.

Clad in T-shirts in their school colors and walking single file, students criss-crossed Aldrich Park, traveling from one educational activity to the next. Each lasted about 20 minutes.

"Hands-on learning like this is great for the kids," said Tricia Lamb, who teaches fourth grade at Kaiser Elementary School in Costa Mesa. The activities have taught her students about recycling, conservation and the water cycle. "And with the drought going on, this is even more relevant."

Dozens of public agencies and nonprofits hosted the activities, which often involved games. In an activity organized by the Mesa Water District, fifth-graders from El Morro Elementary School in Laguna Beach learned about conditions that affect state reservoir levels as they took turns spinning a wheel.

When the wheel landed on "fix a leaky faucet," students added water to their "reservoir" — an 8-gallon bucket. But when they landed on "drought," they scooped water out. Rubber ducks floating on the reservoir added to the fun.

"Aw," the students shouted when they landed on drought.

"They can see what it means to have a full reservoir and when we need to start conserving," said Noelle Collins, the public affairs coordinator for Mesa Water.

Across the park, Rose Orozco, a fourth-grader at Kaiser, played a bingo game highlighting marine life, an activity she called "really cool."

Though only 9, Orozco is mindful of the drought. She said she takes short showers and other steps to conserve water.

"We don't want to waste it," Orozco said.

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