Student to student watershed education

"A watershed is a marvelous thing to consider: this process of rain falling, streams flowing, and oceans evaporating causes every molecule of water on earth to make the complete trip once every two million years." -- Gary Snyder

by Alice Martinez
he February meeting of the Regional Water Quality Control Board was a study in contrasts. After the revealing discussion concerning expired and unprocessed pollution discharge permits, board members saw another perspective on water quality and pollution into San Diego Bay. The next item was a report on the "Student to student watershed education program" being conducted with an EPA grant to the Environmental Health Coalition (EHC).

Educational efforts were based in the 460 square mile Chollas Creek watershed which flows into San Diego Bay at the 32nd Naval Street Station. Chollas Creek drains an area of 25 square miles where the land use is 63 percent residential, 2 percent industrial, 15 percent commercial and 20 percent open space (most of which is a cemetery). The creek flows intermittently, mostly in a concrete channel.

The program was coordinated by Libby Lucas of EHC and Keith Fink, a secondary life science instructor and biology professor at University of San Diego. Working with students from the Lincoln/Gompers schools in southeastern San Diego, ten high school students worked with 1,600 elementary school students in an environment designed to foster an attitude of stewardship through peer tutoring. The six-week summer course included speakers, field trips, and tours.

High school student interns work with elementary
school kids on issues of water quality.

Somebody knows some standards

While Regional Board staff seems to be having a problem with standards, local students forged ahead with their science teachers. At many of the sites with expired or unprocessed pollution discharge permits, water quality tests were performed by students. Students tested for a number of indicators of water ecosystem health: total dissolved solids, dissolved oxygen, phosphates, nitrates, copper and e. coli bacteria (an indicator of fecal contamination). Tests were performed at five different sites including the mouth of Chollas Creek as it goes into San Diego Bay and at Southwest Marine Shipyard.

Copper and phosphate levels at every site were above levels suggested to maintain a healthy estuarine ecosystem. There were no reported problems with nitrates. E. coli was present at every site, although they did not measure the levels. Commenting later, Board Executive Director Dave Robertus stated, "a lot of the time it's the sea gulls." But in San Diego, a lot of the time it's not.

Program graduate and student tutor Elizabeth Quinonas is now inspired to continue environmental science teaching. "I now know what a watershed is and about polluted runoff and what the alternatives are. I learned that the only water that is treated is that from our homes. I want to teach what is going on in our own backyards."

Libby Lucas of the Environmental Health Coalition summed up their ongoing efforts:

"Educating the public leading to behavioral changes takes time and popularizing of the issue. The stated goal of the 1972 Clean Water Act was 'to eliminate the discharge of pollutants to navigable waters by 1985.' We have not achieved this, primarily because of site-polluted runoff. Though we cannot see many of the pollutants in the runoff from upstream, they are there - hydrocarbons, pesticides, dissolved metals ­ and they can pose a threat to people, fish and wildlife. What do we do about polluted runoff? Education with a foundation of pollution prevention. Teach toxics use reductions and elimination of pollutants as contrasted with pollution control or treatment. One example of this is the storm drain stencils 'No dumping, I live downstream.'

"Recycling wasn't always a household word and now we believe it's time for polluted runoff to get to that point. Cleaning up the pollution going into our watershed, creeks, estuaries and bays requires the ongoing vigilance of the public combined with legislation requiring the testing, monitoring and reporting of pollutants."

Watershed educational materials and success stories may be found via Global Rivers Environmental Education Network, 206 South Fifth Avenue, Suite 150, Ann Arbor, Michigan 48104. Phone (313) 761-8142. Internet:

Support environmental education

Outdoor Science Laboratory Open House
Lincoln/Gompers Cluster Schools
March 16, April 27 or May 4
Call 235-0281 for directions. The Gompers Schools lab area is just south of Highway 94 and west of Euclid Avenue.

ake a tour of this wonderful 3.6 acre oasis in transition to its natural habitat. The site contains a small creek bed which channels runoff from a residential area north of the Martin Luther King Jr. freeway and a portion of the freeway itself. Plans for site development include an oak woodland plant community, a coastal sage restoration area, a freshwater marsh habitat, water purification lab, butterfly garden, wind-powered generator and alternative technology center.

The Outdoor Environmental Science Learning Laboratory is working to provide a shared resource for the schools to give students hands-on experience and provide an environment to inspire enthusiastic learning and a sense of stewardship for the environment.