The Nature Conservancy logo. Protecting nature. Preserving life.

I took my kids last month on President’s Day to see a special exhibit at the Great Lakes Science Center in Cleveland called “Water: H2O = Life.”

To those who think this means I dragged my kids on their vacation day to an event related to my career, well … you’re right.

However …

First, we also visited an indoor rain forest where they saw orangutans, pythons and crocodiles and then saw a jaw-dropping IMAX movie about prehistoric sea monsters. So they had their fun.

Second, it’s not like I work for Allstate and roped them into an exhibit called “Insurance Premiums Through Time.” They got a lot out of the exhibit, particularly its various hands-on activities.

But I definitely had the most fun. For context, concepts like environmental flows are generally not at the forefront of most people’s minds, and so my job can be somewhat hard to explain. But stepping foot into “Water = Life,” crowded on this holiday, was like entering an alternate reality where everyone understood and cared deeply about the things that I work on.

And all my favorite issues were right there — the importance of flow regimes, the quest for “better dams,” how floodplains and flood pulses drive river productivity and deliver great benefits to people.

Luca removes a dam

HANDS-ON LEARNING: Luca removes a dam.

How rarely do I actually get to say things like: “You see here, below the dam the flow has high energy and it carries away all the sand. But behind the dam, the water flow doesn’t have energy and the sand drops out and into the reservoir. But now if you remove the dam …”

(At this point, my 7-year-old son pulled a lever, removing the model-sized dam that backed up water in a plexiglass flume.)

“… you can see the river has enough energy to pick up all that sand and move it throughout the whole river.”

Such phrases usually aren’t as compelling as “Did you see that reverse jam from LeBron last night?” but here, in this alternate reality, rather than seeing quizzical looks, I noticed several bystanders nodding their heads thoughtfully. And I just knew what they were thinking, “Ah yes, now I can see how dams interrupt processes of sediment transport, thereby impacting downstream channel morphology.” I could just see it in their eyes …

But seriously, it was a great exhibit. My kids watched rainfall percolate through the gravel and sand of an aquifer (cross-sectioned behind Plexiglass) and then worked a hand pump to extract water from the aquifer and watched as the water table dropped until an artesian well stopped flowing. We sat on a row of painted-on toilet seats to view a short movie about where our water comes from and — simply too good to be true for elementary kids — where it goes after we flush.

“Water = Life” is a traveling exhibit developed by a group of museums lead by the American Museum of Natural History (check out this overview of the exhibit and freshwater conservation). If you’d like to learn more about water and how rivers work, it’s definitely worth a visit. Cleveland is the last planned stop in the United States, ending on April 11, followed by visits to Canberra, Australia, and then Toronto. The exhibit may continue traveling after that, so if you’re interested, encourage your local science or natural history museum to sponsor a visit.

Wren and her stuffed frog, oblivious to the Mekong giant catfish lurking just beneath the surface.

EXHIBIT FUN: Wren and her stuffed frog, oblivious to the Mekong giant catfish lurking just beneath the surface.

— Text by Jeff Opperman, Cool Green Science Blog

Photos: Jeff Opperman/TNC

New water exhibit: H20 = Life
A new traveling museum exhibit called "Water: H2O = Life" amazes water blogger Jeff Opperman... with an alternative universe of water-concerned people.