Dennis Nelson grew up on his family’s North Dakota farm, where the groundwater well barely supplied their basic needs. As a child, he didn’t know why the water was scarce when their land was surrounded by wetlands, or “prairie potholes,” as he calls them. “I simply couldn’t make the connection at a young age about how we could have so much, and yet so little, water,” he says. In 1984, Nelson created Project WET Foundation as a way to help young people better understand water issues like the ones he struggled with during his formative years.
Project WET started in South Dakota as an extension of Nelson’s work creating experiential educational tools for locals to learn about the health risks of their local water supply, which was causing a cluster of cancer cases at the time. Nelson says that these beginnings for Project WET still inspire his work as the nonprofit’s president and CEO today. “If someone can protect themselves through knowledge and awareness of a water issue, that’s a big deal to us — those things really drive me,” he says.
After years of exposure to water research, Nelson now knows that his family farm had a distinct water address. Just like a home address, a water address is a way to identify distinct attributes — like weather, climate, and geology — that affect the availability of water in an area. Project WET now operates in 65 countries around the globe through an extensive network of grassroots educators and leaders. The programs are tailored to each community’s unique water address and to the context of each community’s capabilities. Project WET brings its ActionEducation curriculum to a community and facilitates a learning environment where, “as teachers, mentors, family members, we just need to encourage people to take those small actions,” he says. Compounded across communities around the world, he believes that small actions can lead to big changes, fulfilling what Nelson says is a need for “a global appreciation for water.”
is an editorial intern for Circle of Blue based out of Traverse City, Michigan. She holds a BA in International Relations from Michigan State University’s James Madison College. Her interests include water pricing, environmental economics and policy, and conflict mediation.