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August 5, 2021

How high schoolers are making their schools more water-wise during historic drought

Interns Asher Stewart, left, Isaac Middlemas and Jaron Tsao take notes and check sprinklers for their type and if they can
be more efficient at Altara Elementary School in Sandy on June 17, 2021. Building upon a successful Water Manager internship program that has saved upward of 20 million gallons of water annually for the past six years, mathematically inclined high school students this summer will undergo training on tracking water usage with the aim of applying just enough water to the district’s 370 acres of green space to keep fields healthy while maximizing their drought tolerance. (Annie Barker, Deseret News)

SALT LAKE CITY — A group of three high school students runs through a field of sprinklers, narrowly dodging bursts of water as they shout out, “137, white head, quarter flow!” One of them quickly jots down notes on a spreadsheet, eager to bring it inside and get to the fun part: calculus and auditing.

Doesn’t sound like your ideal summer? Then you must not be a water manager intern, where summer fun means traveling to 40 schools around the Canyons School District to track water usage by the hundreds of sprinklers on lawns, curbs and playgrounds.

The program, started by energy engineer Christopher Eppler six years ago, trains high schoolers on how to track and audit water usage for the district. The program has saved upward of 20 million gallons of water each year, with savings accruing annually.

Students typically enter this program on recommendation from their AP calculus teachers, as the job requires a certain mathematical ability to determine how much water is needed to effectively water the district’s 370 acres of green space. Eppler says the answer always comes as a surprise.

“I’ll say: ‘Here’s a 10-acre site. ET (evapotranspiration) is X amount of inches a year. An inch of water is 27,154 gallons of water for an acre. How much water are you going to use for this site?'” says Eppler. “And the answer always blows them away, because that’s a lot of water. And that’s what students get introduced to: how much water it takes to irrigate their play fields.”

Once students learn about the amount of water it takes to supply a field with water, they’re off to the races. A group of five or six interns typically splits into two teams, each heading to a different school with either Eppler or an assistant to watch their progress. They work their way around the school, triggering the sprinklers to come on and measuring flow outputs.

Interns Isaac Middlemas, left, Jaron Tsao and Asher Stewart check sprinklers for their type and if they can be more efficient at Altara Elementary School in Sandy on June 17, 2021.
Interns Isaac Middlemas, left, Jaron Tsao and Asher Stewart check sprinklers for their type and if they can be more efficient at Altara Elementary School in Sandy on June 17, 2021. (Photo: Annie Barker, Deseret News)

Inevitably, they’ll also discover broken sprinkler units, which are important to address. A system only works as well as its weakest link, and a broken sprinkler means that the whole line is working at less water pressure. Students learn how to put in work orders and recommendations for the district to follow, and the school district listens.

“The responsibility weighs on me a little, because, it’s like, you really don’t want to mess up,” said Isaac Middlemas, one of the interns. Middlemas is a rising senior who took the internship as a way to make a little money over the summer and “flex a little” on his college applications. “You want to do the best you can, and I really try to do that with everything here.”

This year, there are five interns from various high schools in the Canyons School District. Some of them knew each other beforehand, while some, like Asher Stewart, came entirely on his own. Stewart was drawn to the program by his interest in conservation, which he hopes to pursue in college. Eppler said that of his 30 previous interns, three have gone on to work in natural resource conservation.

“A lot of these kids are self-starters,” said Eppler. “It’s a way for them to make a difference, which they are, without a doubt. Every day they work, they’re cutting back water, and using water smarter.”

This program has special significance this year. With drought conditions looking to be the worst in recorded history, it’s vital for schools to save water in whatever way they can. Snowpacks are now virtually nonexistent, reservoir levels are already decreasing, and soils are drier than anything seen in the past 20 years, soaking up all the water that would be running down into rivers and watersheds, say watershed experts.

Letting the district’s acres go yellow isn’t an option for several reasons, said Eppler. The fields function as a public place for sports, recreation and club activities, as well as an outdoor outlet for children in summer programs. An unwatered play area creates hard, unyielding soil, which leads to more likelihood of injuries. As more people play on the grass, even as it is being watered, the friction of their shoes generates heat and presses down on the soil, damaging and tearing it.

But the program is looking for places to save water usage. Part of the interns’ responsibilities include looking at curbside patches of grass and determining if they could go yellow for a summer. This works in tandem with the governor’s call to lower water usage, said Kirsten Stewart, associate communications director at Canyons School District.

“Beyond this program, we’ve invested in replacing our five football fields with artificial turf,” said Stewart. “We’ve also replaced grass with rocks and drought-resistant plants. It’s all about watering smart and understanding exactly how much water our grounds actually need.”

The program encourages students to reflect on their water usage at home. Asher Stewart has been working with his mother to improve their lawn and regulate their sprinkler usage to use less water for the summer. Middlemas labors alongside his father on their lawn, trying to find the most efficient way to keep their grass healthy without wasting water. Jaron Tsao, a rising senior, encourages his friends to be water conscious and to use their water smarter.

When asked what advice they’d give to Utahns during this drought, each of them asked that they be aware of their water usage.

“Just be mindful of your actions and how they affect the world around you,” said Asher Stewart. “This is probably the only world we’re going to get, and it’s important to take care of it.”

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