Teaming with an Urban Community to Take Back a Watershed

Watershed Avengers have inspired over 15,000 people to take action and improve the environment in their community. Join us at SERCAL 2015 in San Diego this May and be inspired yourself —  Shara Fisler, Executive Director of the Ocean Discovery Institute, and ODI alumni will be presenting their work in the plenary and technical sessions.

Watershed Avengers have inspired over 15,000 people to take action and improve the environment in their community. Join us at SERCAL 2015 in San Diego this May and be inspired yourself —  Shara Fisler, Executive Director of the Ocean Discovery Institute, and ODI alumni will be presenting their work in the plenary and technical sessions.

Spring 2015 Ecesis, Volume 25, Issue 1

If you had ventured into Swan Canyon circa 2007, you probably would not have found yourself enjoying a serene nature experience. A few other things, however, you probably would have found. 

A tire, for instance. Or maybe a discarded sofa. And that wouldn’t have been the worst of it. 

For decades, Swan Canyon — one of four major canyons that carve across the urban neighborhood of City Heights in central San Diego — was a place of both environmental and human degradation. Invasive plants like Arundo donax choked the canyon habitats, which became a haven for illegal dumping and a catch-all for the contents of polluted stormwater runoff from the streets above. 

The canyons were also home to transiency, drug dealing, and other criminal activity. Local officials say it wasn’t uncommon for homeless encampments to thrive under the cover provided by invasives, making human-caused brush fires an all-too-common occurrence.

Venture into Swan Canyon today, and you’ll find something else entirely. You might follow a well-maintained trail, and observe wildlife thriving in chaparral and riparian plant communities. And you can feel safe doing it.

So what happened in between?

In 2007, Ocean Discovery Institute — an organization that brings science and conservation education to thousands of young people in City Heights — set its sights on a massive restoration of Swan Canyon. The effort, called Watershed Avengers, would require the participation and full buy-in from the City Heights community. And City Heights stepped up in a big way.

“I remember feeling overwhelmed by how poor the conditions in the canyon were from years of degradation,” said City Heights native Sonya Vargas, who helped plan the first large-scale Watershed Avengers event in Swan as an Ocean Discovery student. “There was so much to be done and I didn’t know how we’d be able to do it all. Thanks to the community’s dedication and constant participation in restoration events, Swan Canyon looks fantastic.”

Watershed Avengers has restored five acres of Manzanita Canyon, planting over 5,000 native plants, wiping out Arundo, and removing 3,000 pounds of trash that might have otherwise wound up in San Diego Bay or the Pacific Ocean. 

But an even more important number is this: The events have inspired 15,000 people — many of them young people from low-income and minority groups — to take action and improve the environment in their community. That, in a nutshell, gets to the heart of the mission of Ocean Discovery, which uses the ocean as a framework for preparing the next generation of scientific leaders.

Part of the organization’s approach to engage young people in science and conservation are community-based, hands-on programs that generate curiosity. Watershed Avengers is the centerpiece of the community-based initiative, engaging young people and their families in conservation activities relevant to their daily lives. Like all of Ocean Discovery’s initiatives, Watershed Avengers targets youth in the undeserved urban community of City Heights — a place where opportunities to connect with nature are scarce and the scientific and environmental education opportunities in local public schools are virtually nonexistent.

Against this backdrop, Ocean Discovery has made incredible strides in imparting the importance of urban canyons to City Heights’ young people and their families, enabling them to see how seemingly small actions in their community — both positive and negative — affect the environmental health of the entire region. The community has also coalesced around the unmistakable benefits clean, safer canyons provide, including recreational open space, increased property values, and decreased crime.

“The community’s attitude has dramatically changed over the past ten years,” said Carla Pisbe, a City Heights native who now leads Watershed Avengers as Ocean Discovery’s Environmental Stewardship Coordinator. “There is a sense of pride and awareness of our canyons.”

As the state of California becomes increasingly urbanized and ever more diverse, the future health of the environment we share is dependent on successful outreach to young people from communities typically underrepresented in the environmental field. Ocean Discovery provides a model for how that can happen, as Executive Director Shara Fisler will discuss in her keynote address at SERCAL’s May 2015 conference, “Restoration for the Next Generation.”

For a firsthand glimpse of what’s possible, all you have to do is walk through Swan Canyon.
“It is so inspiring to see Swan Canyon restored back to its natural beauty, but the best part about it is that through restoring these natural areas, we are able to simultaneously restore our communities,” said Vargas, a UC Santa Barbara graduate who adds she caught the “ecology bug” from her time in Watershed Avengers. 

“These restoration events don’t just improve the quality of our canyons and wildlife, they improve the quality of our lives by bringing us closer to nature, they teach us to respect and protect our canyons — and they motivate us to be stewards of the environment in our everyday lives.”  — by Mike Klitzing, Ocean Discovery Institute