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Jennifer Bowles: Building Water Literacy

Water Education Foundation’s executive director Jennifer Bowles talked to Water Deeply about why water literacy in California is so important, in both wet and dry years – and how to bring different voices to the table to work on the state’s complicated water issues.

Written by Tara Lohan Published on Read time Approx. 5 minutes

California’s drought has turned public attention to water issues in the state. But Jennifer Bowles is working hard to make sure people gain a deeper understanding of water in California every year.

Bowles is the executive director of the Water Education Foundation, a Sacramento-based nonprofit founded in 1977 – when California was weathering another drought. The organization is focused on water literacy and provides resources to get an overview of California water issues or to take a deep dive.

Bowles and her team publish a range of materials – Western Water magazine; a series of guides to topic areas (like groundwater or water rights) or geographic areas of note (like the Delta or the Colorado River); a news aggregator of top water stories; maps; and even a digital encyclopedia. They also host tours and conferences, including their annual executive briefing, and have a yearlong Water Leaders program for young professionals.

Water issues in California can be contentious and politically wrought, but the Water Education Foundation approaches topics holistically, bringing in voices from as many sides as possible including environmental, agricultural, tribal and infrastructure-related, says Bowles.

She recently spoke to Water Deeply about which water issues are most pressing right now in California and how to increase water literacy across the state.

Water Deeply: For our readers who aren’t familiar with the Water Education Foundation, tell us about what you do.

Jennifer Bowles: The mission of the Water Education Foundation, an impartial, nonprofit organization, is to create a better understanding of water resources and foster public understanding and resolution of water resource issues through facilitation, education and outreach.

People see the foundation as the Switzerland of the California water world. They see it as a safe place to come to learn. But also a part of it is understanding different perspectives. So when everyone comes to the table you’ll learning someone else’s perspective. That’s what is going to help down the road to resolve a thorny water issue.

When the foundation was started in 1977 it was the only place to learn about California water. Our executive briefing was the only water conference. Now you’ll see several conferences by different organizations. But it’s still really one of the few that is impartial and unbiased.

Water Deeply: Which issues right now are the most crucial topics?

Bowles: People would say that this is the year for the Delta tunnels, whether they go forward or not. For us, we’ll talk about this in several ways and we’ll also have our Bay Delta tour that people can go on that will have people talk about the tunnels both for and against – and neutral. The tunnels are a big deal because it’s estimated to cost $15 billion and it’s sort of in its administrative approval process right now. Some lawmakers are saying they want to put it to a vote to the people now. It’s such a thorny issue. Everyone is saying this is the year either they happen or they don’t.

I think also with El Niño and statewide digging ourselves out of this drought is another issue. Who knows if El Niño will help that much – it depends on where El Niño drops the snow, drops the rain. Location, location, location is what I always like to say with California water. If we don’t get it up in Northern California, it’s not going to fill the reservoirs that’s needed for the entire state.

Another issue is the conservation mandates – those are being extended. It’s been really great. Californians have really responded to this call for conservation from the governor, so that’s nice to see. The question is whether or not when this drought is over they will continue to conserve because with or without the drought water is a precious resource in California.

We held our first ever drought tour last year and it was sold out. The drought has really put a spotlight on California water. We just hope that it doesn’t change once the drought is over, if it’s over. We don’t know if this is the new normal.

Water Deeply: How do you think we can keep people interested in the big picture of California water issues when we have more frequent wet weather again?

Bowles: We’ll do our best to keep the spotlight on it. Education is really important in this area. To me there is nothing more interesting, more political, more costly or more critical than water in California.

And people really need to understand water because these projects that bring water to their taps often cost in the millions if not the billions of dollars. These are your tax dollars or water rates at work so it’s really important for them to understand water when it comes time to vote. Water doesn’t go away, it’s a critical resource that is needed by everyone to sustain our lives.

It’s that important. And to grow our food and keep our environment alive. It’s a very critical issue and we’ll do our best to keep that interest level.

Water Deeply: Do you think Californians have a basic understanding of water literacy, like where their water comes from?

Bowles: One of the most popular items on our website is the Where Does My Water Come From? page. We know people are interested in that.

I think the drought is putting a spotlight on it and we can tell from our website that more and more people are going to that web page that we have. Hopefully it continues.

Another part of the battle is for people to understand that every time they turn their tap on there is a story behind every drop of water that comes out of that faucet. It may start as a snowflake falling in the Sierras or a raindrop going into a reservoir, like Shasta, 500 miles [800km] away from their home.

Water Deeply: What else can we do to increase water literacy in the state?

Bowles: Project WET is a water education program for teachers. We are the California coordinator for that national program and we coordinate workshops up and down the state to teach educators how to teach about water so it reaches that younger generation. Teaching them when they are young is important. It reaches thousands of children who hopefully then grow up and have a better understanding of water.

Water Deeply: Because of your “Switzerland” position, are there any topics you don’t get to cover that you think are especially pertinent?

Bowles: We get to do stuff that we want. We want to be more nimble in terms of what we do. Our Western Water magazine tackles topics that we think are important. The one that is coming up will be about ocean desalination. There is so much more that goes into it. We think that’s an important topic. What is really the future of ocean desalination? That’s an important and timely topic and that’s what we are examining.

Water Deeply: Water issues in California can be very contentious. Do you see progress in bringing many differing voices to the table?

Bowles: We think it helps with our Water Leaders program. They are younger professionals in the water world and we see them really understanding the other side. Last year’s program we saw it happening.

We also build in a lot of networking time into our tours and other events so people can get to know each other.

We have a Colorado River Symposium in Santa Fe every two years and we know there are all these side meetings where they are actually trying to hammer out some deal or some negotiation. People come from Mexico and from all seven states that rely on the Colorado River. We know that they talk and get to know each other better. We know we’re helping.

Top image: Jennifer Bowles leads the Water Education Foundation’s efforts to increase awareness and understanding of California water issues. (Water Education Foundation)

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