Colorado Stormwater Center expanding with focus on education, equity, inclusion

Jessica Thrasher working to install a rain garden in Denver
Jessica Thrasher, education and outreach manager for the Colorado Stormwater Center, worked with Groundwork Denver to install rain gardens in low-income communities in August and September. The stormwater center provides training on how to install rain gardens, along with many other educational resources and training opportunities.

Water issues like drought affect everyone, but not everyone has access to information that could help them conserve and properly manage water. Jessica Thrasher, education and outreach manager for the Colorado Stormwater Center, wants to change that.

“Equal access to information should be the baseline for all we do,” Thrasher said. “We have some work ahead of us to get there, but once we’re there, we can expand upon these programs.”

The Colorado Stormwater Center’s mission is to advance stormwater management throughout Colorado by conducting practical research and providing education and training opportunities. Thrasher, who has been leading the center since November 2020, is focused on training more people from different backgrounds and eliminating barriers to training, including those of language, distance and cost.

The center, based in CSU’s Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, traditionally has trained stormwater managers who work for municipalities across Colorado, but over the past year, Thrasher has been reaching out to others who also play a role in stormwater management: landscapers, property managers, HOA representatives and homeowners.

“Stormwater isn’t just managed by municipalities,” Thrasher said. “There’s a lot of other people who are interacting with stormwater control measures, and we want to make sure they have the education they need to be able to maintain them properly.”

If not maintained properly, stormwater infrastructure, such as extended detention basins – the most common stormwater control measure in Colorado – can fail, requiring expensive repairs.

Breaking down barriers

Jessica Thrasher and her son Austin stand near a completed rain garden in Denver.
Jessica Thrasher, education and outreach manager for the Colorado Stormwater Center, worked with Groundwork Denver to install rain gardens in low-income communities in August and September. Thrasher’s son, Austin, helped install one of the rain gardens in Denver.

A project in partnership with the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment and Northern Water confirmed the need for bilingual stormwater education. The center delivered three trainings, covering green infrastructure, rain gardens and extended detention basins, in both English and Spanish. Of the 402 participants, 71 – or approximately 18% – were Spanish speakers.

Thrasher expects that expanding the resources available in Spanish will lead to greater engagement.

“The Latinx community has not had access to these resources in the past, and as the word gets out that more education is available in Spanish, engagement will continue to grow,” said Thrasher, who identifies as a member of the Latinx community.

Through a grant from the Colorado Water Conservation Board and the Colorado Stormwater Council, the center will convert their education materials, certifications and trainings into Spanish. They also will create a Spanish section of their website where all of these resources can be accessed for free.

Thrasher intends to incorporate Spanish translation into all of the center’s future programs and trainings, along with a focus on equity. Low-income and minority communities often are among those most impacted by flooding and drought, she said.

“If these communities are not able to even have a voice, then we’re at risk of repeating the same past mistakes as we move forward with development,” Thrasher said. “In order to have informed communities, we need to have resources available.”

Thrasher aims to provide all of the center’s trainings as online videos, so anyone interested can learn at their own pace, without having to take time off work or travel to a training site. She also plans to offer scholarships to attend certifications, so cost is not a barrier.

All voices, disciplines welcome

Studio photo of Jessica Thrasher
Jessica Thrasher, education and outreach manager for the Colorado Stormwater Center

Thrasher has at times been one of only a few minority voices at water conferences. When she organized the 2021 Colorado Stormwater Symposium in August, she sought speakers representing the diversity of the field. The majority of last year’s speakers were women, a first for the symposium.

Diverse voices bring additional perspectives to water issues, Thrasher said, and with water resources dwindling in the West, we need to listen to all communities and work toward solutions together.

“We’re better when more people are a part of the conversation,” she said.

Thrasher’s applied anthropology background might at first seem out of place at the Colorado Stormwater Center, but her master’s in anthropology from CSU and community engagement skills serve to connect communities with the tools they need to affect change in the crucial area of water management.

“We need interaction with the community to be sure that our education, trainings and tools are effective and will be utilized,” she said.

Thrasher, who received BizWest’s 2021 Women of Distinction award in the education category, aspires to bring in students and experts from various disciplines across CSU to help develop best practices and create sustainable landscapes.

“We can’t do things the same way we’ve done them before,” she said. “Now is the time for innovation, collaboration and inclusion of diverse perspectives to create solutions to our water challenges. With the One Water Solutions Institute, the Colorado Stormwater Center will be working to develop the tools, research and education needed to build sustainable, resilient communities.”