Week 5, Day 2: Water and History

Frank Brown grew up on a homestead and helped to take care of animals like this burro. Both Frank’s family and their animals needed water, although it was more difficult to access. (Los Alamos Historical Society Photo Archives.)

Today’s Take It Outside post is about water — specifically the water on the Pajarito Plateau. This week’s activities are brought to you in partnership with the Los Alamos County Department of Public Utilities (DPU), as part of our virtual water festival.

Look for our Droplet Dude to indicate virtual water festival activities. All are welcome to take part, and we especially welcome fourth graders!

Blog Post:

In today’s blog post, Aimee Slaughter from the Los Alamos Historical Society explores how water has been accessed and used over time on the Pajarito Plateau. Learn how Ancestral Puebloans, homesteaders, the Los Alamos Ranch School, and the Manhattan Project adapted to our dry environment in the past. Read her blog post here.

Virtual Water Festival: Household Water Survey

After reading about the history of water in Los Alamos above, let’s think about how we all use water every day. Take a household water survey! Find out how much water you are actually using with this survey from the EPA. This survey covers 7 days so you can get a good idea of how much water you actually use.

If you are a 4th grader, try checking in with some of your friends when you’re done and see how your water usage compares. You can also plug your numbers into this water calculator to find the water footprint for your household.


This acequia helps provide water to a farm in the Española Valley. (Photo by Bill Orr)

Acequias are a traditional way of transporting water in New Mexico, diverting water from rivers into ditches for irrigation. Build your own house and ditch system using Lincoln Logs and straws. If you don’t have Lincoln Logs, try using different blocks or toys you have to make a house.

Make it rain with a spray bottle and try to catch and direct your water into channels, or ditches. These ditches can bring water to crops, animals, or other houses.

Find more information on this activity here.

Outdoor Challenge (Beginner):

Head outside in your backyard, go on a walk, or take a hike. Look for signs of flowing water as the snow melts from yesterday’s storms. 

Is water dripping off the tree tops? Is the snow melting into the ground and watering your plants or lawn? Can you find it flowing in streams or ditches? 

If you lived on the Pajarito Plateau before we had reliable running water, how would you capture this water and transport it back home?

Outdoor Challenge (Advanced):

Go outside and check out a favorite natural spot. Notice small-scale dips and rises in the landscape. Do you notice any types of plants growing preferentially in the dips, and others that thrive better on the rises?

As we learned in today’s blog post, Ancestral Puebloans on the Pajarito Plateau created terraced farms, which allowed water to run from higher plots to lower ones, to ensure that little water was wasted. Some water-wise gardeners today use a similar method, planting more drought-tolerant plants near the tops of slopes, and plants that require more water below. Think about how rainwater and other moisture could be directed throughout your own garden space to make the most use out of the water.

Other Resources:

Share Your Experience:

Tell us about water in your surroundings! We’d love to see your photos, too. Please send them to takeitoutside@peecnature.org or share them on Facebook or Instagram with the hashtag #peectakeitoutside.

Join us tomorrow to learn more about water!

Week 5, Day 1: The Water Cycle

The East Fork of the Jemez River. (Photo by Craig Martin)

Welcome to week five of Take It Outside! This week, we are focusing on water and water conservation. This week’s activities are brought to you in partnership with the Los Alamos County Department of Public Utilities (DPU).

Every spring, PEEC and the DPU put on a water festival for the district’s fourth graders. This year’s water festival had to be canceled, but you will find a virtual water festival on these pages. Look for our Droplet Dude to indicate water festival activities. All are welcome to take part, and we especially welcome fourth graders!

Water is crucial to life, and here in the arid Southwest, it’s a limiting resource for both human societies and natural organisms alike. This week, appreciate the water around you, and learn ways to use it wisely around your home and garden!

We want to make these programs useful for you. Please share your feedback on Take It Outside with us by filling out this evaluation form.

Blog Post:

In today’s blog post, atmospheric scientist and PEEC volunteer Jean Dewart explains how clouds are part of the water cycle here in New Mexico. Check it out here!

Virtual Water Festival: Rain in a Jar!

For our activity today, we’re going to make it rain in a jar! Through this activity, we can see some of the parts of the water cycle: evaporation, condensation, and precipitation. Click here for instructions!


Create a water cycle terrarium! Using a jar, create a mini terrarium, adding cotton ball clouds at the top. Place in a sunny location and watch the water cycle unfold. The addition of plants and pretend animals is a fun way for little ones to visualize how the water cycle actually happens in nature.

Find detailed instructions here.

Outdoor Challenge (Beginner):

Image Credit: NASA

Go on a water cycle scavenger hunt! Look for signs that the water cycle is active around you today. How many can you find?

  • Sun shining. Energy from the sun drives the water cycle.
  • Clouds. Clouds are formed by condensation.
  • Rain or snow. These are forms of precipitation.
  • Puddles, bird baths, etc. drying up. This is evaporation.
  • Water running along the ground, or surface runoff.
  • Water soaking into the ground, or infiltration.
  • Plants growing. Plants require water to survive.
  • Water from your faucet. This water likely comes from groundwater.

Outdoor Challenge (Advanced):

Most plants take up water from the soil with their roots, and release water to the atmosphere via transpiration from their leaves. Transpiration is kind of like breathing for plants. About 10% of the humidity in the air comes from plants. You don’t normally see this happening, just like you don’t see the water vapor coming from your own breath. But you can see it if you tie a clear plastic bag around the leaves of a plant and leave it for an hour or two.

Try it and see what happens! Which plants in your yard transpire the most?

See a demonstration of this experiment and learn more about transpiration here.

Other Resources:

  • Learn more about the water cycle from the US Geological Survey.
  • Make a book about the water cycle for our Virtual Water Festival! If you don’t have a printer at home, you can make your own pages by looking at the examples.

Share Your Experience:

Tell us about water in your surroundings! We’d love to see your photos, too. Please send them to takeitoutside@peecnature.org or share them on Facebook or Instagram with the hashtag #peectakeitoutside.

Join us tomorrow to explore water and history!

Clouds and the Water Cycle

A cloudy morning at Bandelier National Monument. (Photo by Sally King/NPS)

By Jean Dewart

Let’s go back, to a time “before clouds.” The air is primarily made up of gases — oxygen and nitrogen — that are invisible to our eyes. Oxygen is about 78% of the air and nitrogen is about 21% of the air. That accounts for 99% of the air! So, the rest of the atmosphere is made up of trace gases that can change depending on time and place.   

One of these trace gases is water vapor — that is, water in its gaseous form. It turns out that Earth is the “goldilocks” planet (that is, it’s just right!) because at the temperatures found on the earth’s surface and in the atmosphere, water can exist in each of its three phases: gas (water vapor), liquid (water), and solid (ice).

Our atmosphere has water vapor in it all of the time — sometimes only a little and sometimes quite a lot. Relative humidity is one way to describe the amount of water vapor in the air. If there were no water vapor in the air (this rarely, rarely happens, and only in very, very cold weather), we describe this as 0% relative humidity. If the air had as much water as it could hold, we describe this as 100% relative humidity. The air in Northern New Mexico is usually between 30% and 60% relative humidity near the surface of the earth.

How does water vapor get into the air? Primarily from evaporation of liquid water from the oceans, rivers, and lakes of the world. In Los Alamos, where we’re far from major bodies of water, water vapor is brought by the winds coming from the Pacific Ocean, the Gulf of Mexico, or the Sea of Cortez (Gulf of California).  

Image Credit: NASA

For a cloud to form, the air must have 100% relative humidity. This allows the water vapor (gas) in the air to condense into liquid water. To get air to 100% relative humidity, the air must usually be cooled. Air can be cooled by lifting it above the ground — sometimes to as high as 20,000 ft above the ground! Air at the earth’s surface can be lifted by winds hitting a mountain (topographic lifting), by a cold front, or by the sun warming the ground and heating the air next to the ground. 

In each case, air will rise (and cool) to a height where the relative humidity is 100% and cloud drops begin to form. If air is lifted high enough, the air can cool enough to form ice crystals instead of water droplets.

Here are the different types of lifting of air in the atmosphere.  

Example of topographic lifting of air to produce clouds:

Image Credit:  University Corporation for Atmospheric Research

Example of a cold front lifting air to produce clouds

Cold Front
 Image Credit:  University Corporation for Atmospheric Research

Example of surface heating of air to produce clouds:

Diagram of how surface heat creates clouds
Image Credit:  University Corporation for Atmospheric Research

What clouds did you see today?

C:\Users\Jean\Pictures\stratus above Pajarito Mountain.jpg
Were they a large gray, flat cloud, with primarily uniform features? These are stratus clouds. (Photo by Jean Dewart)
Did you see large fluffy and puffy clouds? These are cumulus clouds. (Photo by Jean Dewart)
C:\Users\Jean\Pictures\cirrus above the mesa.jpg
Were they thin wispy clouds high up in the sky? These are clouds made of ice, and they are called cirrus clouds. (Photo by Jean Dewart)

If there is rain, then it is a cumulonimbus or nimbostratus cloud. Which one is this?

(Photo by Jean Dewart)

Although you cannot see the top of the cloud in this photo, the rain being organized into a shaft indicates that this is probably a cumulonimbus cloud. Nimbostratus clouds usually have widespread rains, coming down from many parts of the stratus cloud, rather than in distinct shafts as in this photo.  

The World Meteorological Organization has developed a classification of cloud types. To see this, and learn a lot more about clouds, visit their webpage.