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Meet the Las Vegas teens facing Western drought head on

Updated April 20, 2024 - 5:19 pm

The West has experienced what’s been called “mega-drought” for longer than they’ve been alive.

Each year brings new record-hot temperatures, lower water levels at Lake Mead, state in-fighting on the Colorado River and more uncertainty about the longevity of their hometown.

And yet, with limited lessons available at their schools, these Gen Z Las Vegans have taken it upon themselves to learn about the water crisis in its entirety, no holds barred.

These students are the centerpiece of a lesser-known initiative of the Southern Nevada Water Authority — the Youth Conservation Council, a 16-week program for high school students that helps expand young people’s understanding of water.

“It gives them an outlet and shows them that what we do actually makes a difference in conservation,” said Abigail Phillips, a Springs Preserve conservation educator and Las Vegas native who has led the program for nearly a decade. “These kids are a testament to that.”

Throughout the year, they toured a water reclamation facility, the Las Vegas Wash and the Hoover Dam; discussed career paths with water authority employees; and planned the annual Springs Preserve Earth Day celebration that took place on Saturday.

Youth outreach is almost as old as the water authority itself — three years ago, the current initiative replaced the Youth Advisory Council that was founded in 1999. That council focused more on one-off conservation projects in the community, Phillips said.

Today, the program of about 30 students is geared toward career readiness and outreach, leading up to Earth Day, which is celebrated annually on April 22.

At the end of this school year’s program, the Las Vegas Review-Journal caught up with some of these dynamic teens, who all said they see a path forward for a region whose leaders have worked hard to secure water for their generation’s future.

Katie Kim, 18

She may have spent the better part of her high school experience nagging her parents and friends about their lawns and sprinkler systems, but it’s paid off for Katie Kim — she’s off to Cornell University in the fall to study civil engineering.

“It’s easy to say that it’s someone else’s problem,” Kim said of drought. “Young people at least need to stay informed.”

The Faith Lutheran High School senior has spent three years on the water authority’s student council. Kim’s involvement inspired her to apply for the agency’s paid summer internship program, where she spent two summers shadowing water authority engineers, she said.

Kim hopes to specialize in hydraulic engineering, or the study of controlling water flow in structures like bridges and dams. For Saturday’s event, Kim planned to help construct a plastic foam model of the Colorado River, showing how it flows from the Rocky Mountains to Lake Mead.

She said her biggest takeaway from three years on the council is that young people in the West can’t cast aside water as a far-away issue.

“When’s a better time to start than now?” Kim said. “The sooner we can get ahead of this, the better.”

Fisher Parry, 16

Growing up, Fisher Parry was one of Mojave Max’s biggest fans. So much so that his family adopted a desert tortoise named Speedy when he was 3.

Max, the Las Vegas mascot for spring, taught Parry about seasons, which later led to the beginnings of understanding the water cycle — something he’s begun to think about in more detail since joining the water authority’s council.

Parry planned to collect “water pledges” on Saturday, which he used to help people of all ages brainstorm ways to conserve water, whether that’s a change to their home’s lawn or a simpler promise to take shorter showers.

The Palo Verde High School sophomore said he’d like to study water law in the future, a complex topic in the West that governs how rights to the often-scarce resource are distributed.

Learning about everything Southern Nevada has done to preserve its share of the Colorado River is heartening, but Parry said he’d like to see other states implement similar programs.

“We have the tools and everything laid out in front of us,” he said. “We just need to get up and get to it.”

Kira Anderson, 16

Among a group of motivated teens, Kira Anderson is a leader.

She’s the chair of the newly formed board within the council, working on expanding how the students interact with the community. They have started to spend time at local elementary schools reading books about science and may become more involved at the Springs Preserve as peer educators.

Anderson, a Somerset Academy Sky Pointe junior, planned to share water truths at the trivia booth on Saturday. Some of the more surprising facts for people, she’s found, are that professional car washes promote water savings more than using a hose at home and that almost every drop of water used indoors is recycled.

The students who join the council aren’t always focused on science or math. But for this next generation of Las Vegans, it can’t just be engineers who care about water, Anderson said.

“We’re the future decision makers,” she said. “Even if we don’t go into something water-related, we can continue to be informed citizens and do our best to conserve water.”

To become involved in the council, more information can be found on the water authority’s website, including an interest form.

Contact Alan at ahalaly@reviewjournal.com. Follow @AlanHalaly on X.

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