Watershed education: Growing big ideas with small grants

By Betsy Herbert

Santa Cruz Sentinel

Posted: 03/13/13, 12:00 AM PDT

When the San Lorenzo Valley Water District initiated its watershed education grant program in 2003, it was not without controversy. Was it appropriate for a public agency to use public funds for watershed education? Some of the district's ratepayers said no, that the district should stick to the basics of supplying water to its customers. But others opined that watershed education is necessary to reduce human impacts to the local water supply. Proponents won the day and the board voted to approve the program.

Since then, positive community response to the watershed education grant program has steadily increased.

"Not only has the program benefited the youth of San Lorenzo Valley, it's also been a resounding success with adults," says district board member Jim Rapoza.

Now in its 10th year, the program has funded 53 grants -- ranging from $788 to $3,500 -- to teachers, graduate students, musicians, artists, watershed practitioners, citizen scientists and nonprofits. The district's annual budget for watershed-education grants is currently $25,000 -- less than one half of 1 percent of total expenditures.

Watershed education needs to start early, so several grantees have aimed projects at reaching elementary school children. Last year, members of the venerable Banana Slug String Band donned their creature costumes for a series of performances entitled, "We All Live Downstream." Singing, strumming and clowning, the band drew in young audiences to participate and learn about the water cycle, recycling and pollution prevention. The students thoroughly enjoyed the experience, while teachers gave the performances high marks for effectively teaching watershed concepts.

Outdoor educator Sarah Brummel was funded for three consecutive years to provide 16 scholarships to low-income first- through fifth-grade children to attend her nonprofit HOWL Summer Science Camp in the San Lorenzo Valley. HOWL engaged children in learning about the San Lorenzo River through hikes, trash removal, journaling and water-quality testing.

Jane Orbuch, a science teacher at San Lorenzo Valley High School, has consistently won grant funding for her innovative environmental monitoring course. Orbuch advises students who work on field-based environmental research projects, which are remarkably sophisticated. She assigns volunteer mentors to guide students in designing and implementing their projects. Mentors are math and science professionals practicing in various areas. Orbuch's students present their research at the Santa Cruz County Science Fair, where many students have won prizes, and gone on to take honors in the California State Science Fair and International Science Fair.

Watershed education is a lifelong process. Carol Carson, an environmental educator who focuses on adult education, has been repeatedly funded for her "Watershed Nature Walks." These walks have attracted hundreds of adults interested in the natural history of the San Lorenzo River watershed. Carson has assembled a lineup of experts in different fields to lead Saturday walks to accessible areas. Experts have included archeologist Mark Hylkema, endangered species expert Jodi McGraw, UC Santa Cruz Puma Project graduate students Veronica Yovovich and Yiwei Wang, geologist Frank Perry, and fisheries biologist Kristen Kittleson.

In 2010, the San Lorenzo Valley Water District began funding data collection/restoration grants to citizen scientists and practitioners to help complete needed projects on its Olympia Watershed property. Grants were awarded to local botanist Suzanne Schettler to map special status plant species, and to legendary weed-warrior Ken Moore to map and remove invasive plant species. Videographer Jordan Plotsky was funded to document historic mining relics left there by previous owners.

The district plans to announce its first round of 2013 grant awards sometime in April, followed by a call for new grant proposals aimed at enhancing the knowledge and condition of district-owned watershed lands. For more information, visit the San Lorenzo Valley Water District website, www.slvwd.com.