Sara Woods was a fifth grader when a field trip to a western Colorado water festival changed her life.

Fifth grade was “the top of the school” at Chatfield Elementary in Grand Junction, and with rank comes privilege – a trip to the Ute Water Festival, as it was known then, was an important rite of passage for kids her age.

It was a chance to see a real college campus – Mesa State College at the time – to learn about the water cycle, how to conserve water, “then hop on a bus soaking wet from a day full of fun,” Woods said.

“I remember the enthusiasm the presenters had and thinking to myself, ‘They must really love what they do,’ ” she said. “It’s one of my core memories of elementary school.”

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Site Manager Sara Woods, right, and LM Strategic Partner Sam Campbell, environmental monitoring operations manager, speak with students at the Children’s Water Festival at Las Colonias Recreation Area.

It instilled in her a love of science that continues to this day. Woods is now the site manager for the Grand Junction Disposal and Processing Sites, and on behalf of the Atomic Legacy Cabin and STEM with LM, represented the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) Office of Legacy Management (LM) as a presenter at the festival.

The event is now the Western Colorado Children’s Water Festival, and is recognized as the largest event of its kind in Colorado, organizers said. Now in its 27th year, the festival took place at the Lazy River water park at Las Colonias Recreation Area, which was once home to the Climax Uranium Mill.

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Site Manager Sara Woods, right, and LM Strategic Partner Sam Campbell, environmental monitoring operations manager, background, speak with the students from Karen DeRose’s class at Scenic Elementary School.

Woods was telling the students about the various uses for uranium, which started an exchange with a boy whose knowledge of the Cold War clearly exceeded that of a typical 10-year-old.

“OK, that kid knows his stuff,” she said with a chuckle when the class left for the next station.

Organizers of the two-day festival expected more than 1,500 fifth grade students this year, visiting with about 150 different presenters and water experts from Colorado. The presentations were designed to teach students about the many roles water plays in their individual lives, their communities, and the world in which they live. 

This year, LM gave students the opportunity to watch staff testing water samples taken directly from the Colorado River at its diversion into the Lazy River feature. Woods and LM Strategic Partner Sam Campbell, environmental monitoring operations manager, guided students through the demonstration.

Woods explained to the students the history of the Climax Uranium Mill, formerly located on the site that is now Las Colonias Park. Campbell described the milling operations and the reasons LM monitors the groundwater at the site, pointing out the green monitoring wells near the riverbank.

Woods told the Scenic Elementary School students from Karen DeRose’s class that as mill tailings were collected, they were taken to the Grand Junction Disposal Site near U.S. Highway 50 south of Grand Junction.

In a small voice, one boy asked, “How can we drive by it without getting radioactive?”

“That’s a great question!” Woods said. She told the students that when LM receives the tailings for placement, they’re buried, covered, compacted, and covered with a soil sealant that acts as a top layer of glue that prevents windblown material from coming out of the cell.

Woods told the kids that although she and Campbell were both scientists, their jobs were different. Many types of scientists with a wide range of expertise work for LM, she said.

Campbell has a degree in geology, explained Woods, who has a degree in biology. Would anyone in this group be interested in becoming a scientist one day, she asked?

“I have no degree,” one boy said with a trace of dejection.

“Well, that’s OK,” Woods said. “Let’s get you through fifth grade first!”

Presentations were created with this age group in mind, to let the kids learn in a hands-on way, organizers said. LM staff and support partners worked closely with school districts, private schools, and home schools to match the festival experience with their water curricula.

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LM Site Manager Sara Woods tells students about the former Climax Uranium Mill on the site of what is now Las Colonias Recreation Area in Grand Junction, Colorado.

Students learned about the variety of water-related career opportunities, as well as water rights, water in the human body, water conservation, water pollution, water safety, aquatic species, water treatment, the dependency on water in a variety of industries, and much more.

The festival is a collaboration among water providers in the Grand Valley. Andrea Lopez, external affairs manager for Ute Water Conservancy District, attended the festival when she was a student at Taylor Elementary School in Palisade. Like Woods, she said the festival was a major milestone.

“We learned that this is a very sacred day to these fifth graders,” she said. “It’s the last event they go to together and it represents a new chapter in their lives. We’re so happy to be able to create this experience for them.”

She said it’s important for kids to be able to connect with real scientists like Woods and Campbell.

“Our hope is that jobs in the water industry are attractive enough that they’ll move into these science and STEM-driven industries,” she said.

With little break in between, Woods and Campbell made half a dozen presentations Monday. Seven more presentations were scheduled for Tuesday. By Monday afternoon, Woods was a little tired, but energized and exhilarated by her interactions with the precocious youngsters.

“Being able to come full-circle and spend the day teaching the kiddos about how my job positively impacts their lives and the environment is priceless,” she said. “I hope they walk away from the festival with a love for science like I did all those years ago.”