Martha Berthelsen is the public program manager for The Watershed Project. She reflects on her work as a watershed restoration educator and activist. As part of our year- long celebration, we will be interviewing people who have made significant contributions to The Watershed Project.
Sharon: How did you become involved in The Watershed Project?
Martha: I first learned about The Watershed Project (which was the Aquatic Outreach Institute at the time) when I took a few of their classes, a “Kids in Creeks” workshop and a couple of field workshops on local creek restoration projects coordinated by AOI, but led by EBMUD staff. I was hooked by their hands-on approach, combining education with real life projects.
Sharon: Were you able to relate this to your own watershed, to San Pablo Creek?
Martha: I had walked by San Pablo Creek many times and thought that someone should do something here!
Sharon: What did you see looking at the creek?
Martha: Ivy! It covered the creek banks, and was strangling the trees. In 2000, flyers were posted to start SPAWNERS (the San Pablo Watershed Neighbors Education and Restoration Society) and I discovered, “Oh my goodness, there’s a whole lot of people who feel about the creek like I do.” I didn’t think that anybody else around here cared! Just finding out that there were other local residents who cared, plus government agencies, and non-profits that would support the effort was inspiring. I volunteered with the group for over a year and then was hired by AOI to lead the group when the first coordinator left.
For our first Earth Day event, we got a huge number of community people clearing the ivy. We gradually put in a native plants demonstration garden behind the El Sobrante Library and then, we started moving down the creek bank. It’s taken many years and many coordinators to carry on the work.
Sharon: Did this group help change peoples’ relationships to the creek in your community?
Martha: Absolutely! I think that even though in SPAWNERS, we occasionally get frustrated that we’re not getting more people involved, more directly engaged with our hands-on work, yet everybody in the Chamber of Commerce knows that we’re there. They know we’re paying attention to the creek. The Municipal Advisory Committee knows we’re there and when something comes up, they say, “Oh, we all need to care about the creek.” If they need more information, they can come to SPAWNERS. It has definitely heightened community awareness. The creek restoration projects are important, but we need to address what is happening in the whole watershed in order to protect our creeks.
Sharon: So there’s a need for more advocacy for the creek and the watershed?
Martha: Anne L. Riley said it best, in her book, Restoring Neighborhood Streams ,:
“One of the best investments that government agencies can make to further their mission to manage urban watersheds is to financially support citizen organizations that monitor, restore, provide public education about watersheds, and create training and jobs for the people living in the watersheds” (p.248).
By the late 1990s, governments started to realize this, and TWP was able to get funding to support grassroots creek groups in several communities.
Sharon: How was it being the group coordinator?
Martha: As the creek group coordinator, I had to learn and develop many new skills; the variety was challenging, but almost always interesting. Sometimes, it was frustrating dealing with grants, reports, and some government agencies. But I had the opportunity to work with the regional and county water quality monitoring and creek mapping programs, which was exciting. I learned a lot.
Sharon: You also worked as an educator with The Watershed Project.
Martha: I began assisting with educator workshops, and then took on a bigger role with leading Wildlife Gardening workshops, which developed into teaching Bay-Friendly Gardening Workshops. I discovered how much I enjoy teaching. Through TWP, I was given the opportunity to teach a short term class at Merritt College. The class continued for a few years and I eventually realized I really wanted to do more teaching at the college level. I went back to school and earned my Master’s degree so I could teach.
Sharon: What’s been particularly meaningful as you look back on your work?
Martha: After having done this for a while, having someone come back and say, “I’m still using the material I learned in that educator workshop you taught ten years ago!” Or I take my Merritt College students to visit creek projects and talk to creek coordinators, from San Leandro to Oakland to Pinole, and I know that TWP fostered these groups which are still active, engaging the community to protect their creeks. This is how you start something and it continues; it reverberates and expands outward. That’s what is incredibly rewarding!
Sharon: Pinole Creek has been in the news recently with their successful project to revamp the box culvert under the freeway, restoring salmon access to the creek to spawn.
Martha: Yes, this project took 15 years! It’s a great symbol that in urban areas, fish and creeks can coexist. Because of the community interest and with the help of many volunteers and educators, we now have city and state officials, storm water and flood control agencies, all becoming advocates for natural creeks!
Riley, A. (2016). Restoring Neighborhood Streams: Planning, Design and Construction. Washington DC: Island Press.