Dennis Nelson: A Modern Day Pioneer Educating Youth About Water Conservation

Levi Strauss & Co.
May 4, 2015


Q&A with Dennis Nelson, President and CEO, Project WET

Growing up in rural North Dakota in the 1960s and 70s, Dennis Nelson thought about water a lot. The question of whether there would be enough water to support the needs of his family’s farm was a daily worry. Although he no longer works that land, Dennis still has water on his mind — but now he’s focused on educating and empowering young people on the topic.

In 1984, Dennis launched Project WET (Water Education for Teachers) as a way to help students better understand water, including its management and importance. Today, he’s president and CEO of the Montana-based Project WET Foundation, which develops and delivers world-class water education resources, organizes special water events, manages a worldwide network of local implementing partners, and advocates for the role of water education in solving the world’s most pressing water issues.

We are fully aligned with Dennis’ mission at Project WET, that educating future generations about water conservation is critical to helping create a brighter water future. That’s why we’re partnering with Project WET to help them bring their mission to life (in addition to other efforts such as reducing water usage in our supply chain and helping consumers understand their impact). In April, Project WET staff trained more than 100 LS&Co. employees in San Francisco, Singapore and Shanghai to use a customized water conservation curriculum. Our newly minted “LS&Co. Water Ambassadors” will be sharing water conservation activities with local youth in the three locations during our upcoming Community Day on May 7th.

As we embark on these efforts, we had the opportunity to chat with Dennis to learn a bit more about the origins of Project WET, the importance of water education, and, of course, his Levi’s story (with that farming background, we suspected he wouldn’t disappoint). Here’s what he had to say:

How did you get to where you are?

I’m passionate about science, nature, water and education, and I love learning. In my career, I have been extremely fortunate to work with people and organizations that see the value in water education, not as a quick fix, but as a long-term endeavor.

I was essentially given a blank slate and asked to fill it in by creating a new water education program. It was an awesome opportunity and challenge, and when I look back, it speaks volumes for the visionary people I work for and with. An opportunity to dream a bit and develop new approaches was an early career gift!

Ultimately, my story and the success of Project WET is more about people believing in me than about any great personal talent. Persistence and believing in others and giving them opportunities to succeed or fail, and learning from both, also helps.

What keeps you up at night?

I worry that the drought we are now experiencing in California and the southwest states expands to more states, and the precipitation so badly needed to quench our thirst and to replenish our water sources doesn’t come or remains at record low levels for the next few years. That’s serious business because our livelihood and economies are tied to it.

The thought of an extended drought keeps me up at night, but it also fuels my passion for ActionEducation™ — information and education that leads to meaningful and relevant action. The question we need to solve is: How can we use education to help people reduce the amount of water used and still meet critical water needs? That will be the future challenge in the current drought and beyond.

How did you get the idea to found Project WET?

I was asked to create a water education program to help people understand North Dakota’s water resources and the state’s water opportunities and challenges. I didn’t have a road-map, but I did have amazing support from the agency to develop new programs. This was a fertile environment for new ideas, and one of best ideas was Project WET, a program focused on teachers and their students.

Why is it important to educate children about water?

I believe America’s water future is dependent on our collective ability to manage water for the good of all water users. To achieve this we have to educate children, prepare them for an uncertain future in a fast-changing world and teach them to play an active role, making decisions based on knowledge and information.

How will you know Project WET has been a success?

We’ve done studies to show that student learning occurs using our materials and this is a good thing. However, what really tells me Project WET is working is when a young person takes an educational experience around water and puts it into action. If someone goes to Community Day, for example, learns about their water footprint, understands how to conserve a little water for themselves, their family or their school and continues doing that for a year or the rest of their lives — that’s real impact.

What makes someone a great teacher?

A sincere passion for learning and a belief that education is the most important pathway to the future. The ability to make a topic come alive and make it relevant to learners. A passionate teacher is a great teacher!

Tell us about a favorite teacher from your past.

I have two. One was my first grade teacher, Mrs. Love. What a great name for a teacher! The other, and my most favorite, is my mother, especially during my elementary and middle school years. My mother encouraged exploration, discovery and trying new things. My journey with Project WET reflects these values.

What legacy do you hope to leave on the world?

Project WET will live on far into the future based on the importance of water and education. Knowing that Project WET, through the efforts of countless people around the world, is making a difference in the lives of people now and far into the future, is a great legacy. From a personal perspective, I hope my children, grandchildren and generations to come explore, discover, take risks and enjoy nature as I have.

What’s your Levi’s story?

I’ve been wearing Levi’s all my life. Growing up in a farming and ranching community, everyone wore Levi’s jeans, especially the cowboys. I remember the first time I was allowed to pick out my own jeans. This time it was my choice, not my mom’s, and I studied the shelves filled with Levi’s. This was a big deal, a rite of passage of sorts, to choose my own Levi’s!, and remember how very proud I was that I picked them out!

If your Levi’s could talk, what would they say about you?

“It’s such a nice day in Bozeman…why aren’t you riding your Harley Davidson?”