By Kat Sawyer
In September 2023, The Watershed Project (TWP) was invited to give a presentation at CASQA’S 2023 conference in San Diego. The California Stormwater Quality Association (CASQA) is a professional member association that advances sustainable stormwater management protection of California water resources. https://www.casqa.org/ This year’s conference theme was “Rain Ready California”.
The Watershed Project’s presentation, delivered by Kat Sawyer, the Greening Urban Watersheds Program Manager, highlighted TWP’s innovative Youth Watershed Stewards program, which is made possible by our partnership with a public agency, a school district, and an engineering consulting firm.
The Youth Watershed Stewards program partners are:
- The Watershed Project
- San Francisco Public Utilities Commission (SFPUC): the water, wastewater, and power services provider for San Francisco
- San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD)
- Lotus Water: a San Francisco-based water, civil engineering, and integrated design firm
Over the past 15 years, the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission (SFPUC) has provided Urban Watershed Stewardship grants to San Francisco nonprofits and schools to manage stormwater using green infrastructure. These grants have been awarded to build rainwater harvesting systems (RWH) at more than 20 San Francisco public schools. However, over time, many of these systems have fallen into disuse and/or disrepair and required resources and knowledge for maintenance that were no longer available within the communities at those schools.
The Youth Watershed Stewards program was launched in fall 2021 with 3 goals:
- To rehabilitate non-functioning RWH systems at selected San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD) elementary schools and create an evergreen pool of skills and resources for future maintenance and repairs,
- To provide watershed education, green infrastructure education, and career exposure to John O’Connell Technical High School students through the school’s existing Building and Construction Trades Pathway, and
- To provide watershed education and activation of the RWH systems at participating elementary schools by teaching about the water cycle and how to use the RWH systems in school gardens.
To initiate the Youth Watershed Stewards program, TWP paired up with the Construction Technology instructor at John O’Connell Technical High School, whose students were already learning about rainwater harvesting systems and doing hands-on work to build and maintain them on campus through the Construction Trades Pathway. We structured the program to have John O’Connell High School students repair rainwater harvesting systems at elementary schools like a professional would serve a client.
In the fall, TWP and SFPUC provide watershed and green infrastructure classroom education for the John O’Connell High School students. We work with the Construction Technology instructor to select the ”client” elementary school sites with non-functioning RWH systems, develop the rehabilitation approach, and work with students to perform the repairs. In winter, we provide watershed curriculum and teacher trainings to the schools that are receiving RWH repairs, which they then teach to their students over the course of the year. The end of the year culminates with final action project days where the newly repaired cisterns are re-introduced to the elementary school students, and the high school students who performed the repairs lead an activity that connects the curriculum to the real-life experience of watering the school garden with harvested rainwater from the cisterns. The Watershed Project and Lotus Water work together to provide maintenance manuals and educational signage customized to the RWH system at each elementary school, which strengthens the institutional memory of these systems in the school district.
We are now expanding the program to include schools with rain gardens and swales, and we’ve added an additional partner high school that is well-suited to work on green infrastructure in SFUSD. Galileo High School environmental science students in the Career Technical Education pathway will focus on rain garden maintenance for their field work, and we will develop curriculum to complement our activities in client schools with green infrastructure landscapes. As more schools add these important features to their campuses, they will need support to keep them healthy and functional. We’re also deepening our partnership with Lotus Water, tapping their expertise in green infrastructure design to teach students how rain gardens manage stormwater throughout the city. https://www.lotuswater.com/
The Youth Watershed Stewards program is helping to ensure that natural stormwater management techniques are successful in schools, where asphalt is a defining feature on playgrounds. When we invite nature in, our built environment becomes more vibrant and we’re better able to weather the storm in heavy rain events. If we invite water in, we won’t have to run from it!