The Journey of Water — Lego style

Silas Malers, 12, dazzled the Colorado Water Congress with his use of Legos to show how water moves.

February 27, 2019 | By: Todd Hartman

Remember when Legos were introduced as simple rectangular and square plastic bricks you used to build walls and towers?

We don’t either, because that was 70 years ago. Seriously (we looked it up).

Certainly 12-year-old Silas Malers doesn’t remember.

He’s the young man who won the hearts of the 2019 Colorado Water Congress convention attendees with his massive and detailed Lego project that depicts — and let us use his words here — “a giant Lego hydrologic cycle.”

The massive, square-shaped layout took up about 64 square feet when set up in a conference room at the convention, held at the Westin Hotel in Westminster Jan. 30-Feb. 1. The annual convention draws water leaders from across the state.

Silas used an elaborate and enormous assemblage of Legos (plus motors and marbles) to show how water moves. And we’re not the only admirers. Denver’s Channel 7 is also spotlighting Silas’ Lego marvel.

The marbles travel from snow-capped peaks through mountain tunnels and down rivers. The Lego kingdom includes water’s varied uses, including for irrigation, wildlife, energy development, recreation and — critically — beer.

He also nailed the nuances in water’s role in the world around us.

His display shows sediment flows resulting from wildfire, endangered fish, stormwater detention ponds, water treatment plants, green roofs, algae blooms, a livestock feeding operation and, for good measure, a structure he described as a “climate change house, because in a couple of years, who knows, we’re going to be growing coconuts and bananas in Colorado.”

And he’s not finished yet.

For example, he’s building a desert-area reservoir that will have a bathtub ring rising above the water’s edge, illustrating the drought-fueled effects of falling water levels in reservoirs like Lake Powell in Utah.

Silas said he was inspired by “great ball contraptions” that use motors, ramps and lifts to convey balls around a kinetic Rube Goldberg-style bucket brigade.

Silas' Lego project includes a spinning center-pivot irrigation device for his Lego corn crop.
Silas’ Lego project includes a spinning center-pivot irrigation device for his Lego corn crop. Photo credit: Denver Water.

 

That quickly morphed into using Legos to illustrate the movement of water. Why water? His parents are both water engineers in Fort Collins.

“They would tell me things like what a Parshall flume is,” he said. (It’s a flume used to measure rates of water flow, he explained.)

“My husband was the one who suggested he should have a river and the marbles would represent the water moving through it, and it just really exploded from there,” said Malers’ mom, Kate Malers, who works in hydrologic monitoring and has a soft spot for stream gauges. (And yes, her son included one in his Lego model.)

“Silas just kept thinking of ways to illustrate the connections between water and various other issues, like energy development.”

When his parents suggested an agricultural component, Silas “knew he wanted to do a center-pivot,” she said. “How cool is that?”

He used exotic green and yellow Legos to give shape to corn stalks and added a motor to spin the sprinkler.

Silas has spent about 18 months on the project so far.

Setting it up takes about two hours, and another two hours are needed to take it apart. The family pickup is used to transport the Lego world.

The day after Malers debuted his project at the Colorado Water Congress, he and his dad, Steve Malers, planned to drive it to the Poudre River Forum in Fort Collins.

Luckily for anyone trying to relax barefoot in the Malers household, the project resides in dad’s office. (If you live in a home where Legos are popular, you’ll appreciate the ability to walk without fear of stepping on one of the sharp-cornered plastic bricks.)

The growing project’s need for more Legos — lots and lots of Legos — eventually took the Malers to the internet, where you won’t be surprised to learn you can acquire used Legos by the pound, as well as specialized pieces.

Silas' Lego creation includes a lake of blue legos with endangered fish and people boating.
Recreational activities on the water as well as endangered fish are all part of Silas’ creation. Photo credit: Denver Water.

 

“Every once in a while, Silas would ask for a really specific thing, like the Lego fish,” Kate Malers said. “Who knew they made Lego fish?”

Silas’ long-term interest lies in inventing and engineering. Whether that involves water remains to be seen.

But he’s off to a strong start.

While showing off his creation at the Water Congress, Silas — unprompted — described a feature near the top of his model as a “transbasin diversion,” which moves water between river basins, often using tunnels and other feats of landscape engineering.

Why not just move the water down the valley? he was asked.

“It’s cooler this way.”

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