-Martha Schumann Cooper,
Southwest New Mexico Field Representative
How often do children have an opportunity to play in a river? Based on the levels of exuberance I witnessed among a group of youngsters knee-deep in the Mimbres River during the 2012 Children’s Water Festival this summer, not often enough!
I laughed at the general commotion around me: squeals of delight, laughter, and instructions from teachers like, “Don’t push her in the river,” “Stay in line,” and “Settle down.” It seemed they were trying to spoil all the fun.
I may not be the best judge of appropriate behavior at the river. I brought my one-and-a-half-year-old daughter Frances to the festival. It took her about two minutes to jump in the river and another minute before she accidentally belly-flopped into the water.
No matter what age, kids know the best place to be on a hot and sunny day is a cool, clear river.
Who helped bring these boisterous students to the river for a day packed with rich educational sessions by a diversity of presenters? Barbara Nuzzi, sole staff person at the Gila Conservation Education Center, organized the trip, bringing 227 students to a most amazing classroom: The Nature Conservancy’s Mimbres Riparian Preserve.
This inaugural year of the festival brought 4th and 5th grade students from schools in the watershed to learn about the river by rotating through 10 hands-on educational stations.
At one station, I listened to Claire Catlett, a volunteer with the Gila Resources Information Project, led students through an exercise where they had to think about all the ways people use water.
Popular responses included, “a shower” and “I drink water!” In fact, much of the water in the Mimbres is used for irrigation and mining. But the students were frolicking at the upper end of the spring-fed Mimbres Valley, where the river still flows freely because withdrawal by groundwater pumps and surface water diversions is negligible.
The youngest teacher-presenters at the Water Festival were Banyon and Mary, high school students at Aldo Leopold High School. This fantastic duo led our young students into the river to collect and identify—after some coaching—a variety of bugs.
I have been told that children like animate objects the best, and it seems to be true. Surveying for invertebrates or fish is always a very popular activity.
History had a seat at the learning table as well.
Jessa Tumposky, with the Silver City Museum, offered students a historical perspective of the river and how water was hauled in the old days. Frances and I watched the students happily fill up bucket after bucket and dump it into a trough in the grass by the river.
The Mimbres River has supported people for thousands of years. Committed archaeological educator Marilyn Markel shared stories of the Mimbreno people with the students, along with hands-on activities.
On this happy late-summer Friday, amidst the moving groups of students, I reflected on whether the number of people supported by the Mimbres River today is sustainable.
Senior water right holders and irrigators in the Valley have recently argued in court that it is not. Who will the future water users and stewards of this watershed be? Some of them will be these students.
It is difficult to know who might ultimately benefit the most from this 2012 Children’s Water Festival—place or people?
Clearly, in the short-term, the happy smiles on the students’ faces answer this question. But taking the long view, perhaps some of these young people will grow up and become the ones to take care of this place they now love.
Martha Schumann Cooper has lived for 12 years in southwest New Mexico. She has developed strong connections to both the landscape and the conservation community—and a particular fondness for the Gila. She spends a good part of her leisure and work hours hiking around the Gila and Mimbres Rivers. Trained as a forest ecologist, Martha has immersed herself in learning about southwest rivers. When not working for The Nature Conservancy as a landscape director, Martha spends time with her family, runs on trails with her striped and spotted dog, Tessa, bicycles, and backpacking into the Gila Wilderness.