A Conversation with Sara Benjamin, Project Director for “Once Upon a Wetland”
Sara Benjamin is the Project Director for “Once Upon a Wetland” – a watershed education and wetland restoration project of Oak Grove School in Ojai, California. In partnership with the Ojai Valley Land Conservancy, Meiners Oaks Elementary School and Nordoff High School, the project engages students and the community in restoring the Ojai Meadows Preserve and the Ventura River Watershed.
Recently I spoke with Sara about her work with the “Once Upon a Wetland” project.
Craig: You have a Bachelor’s degree in Earth Systems and Masters degree in marine geology. What led you to study these subjects? Were you interested in environmental sciences as a high school student?
Sara: I am passionate about the interconnected and interdependent aspects of life. In school I studied every facet of life on Earth and the relationships and intersections between these systems: animals, plants, soil, rocks, water, wind, energy, matter, chemistry, biology and physics. This curiosity led me to study the whole Earth System and examine our biosphere, atmosphere, cryosphere, lithosphere and hydrosphere and the relationships, and feedbacks between all of these systems. We delineate so that we can begin to understand the whole Earth by getting a good look at all of the parts; nothing exists independently – everything is connected.
I started to see Earth as a living system and continued my education with a Masters degree in marine geology. The ocean is where new earth is born and eventually dies, being recycled back into the mantle to be born again along a mid-ocean ridge. Plate tectonics points elegantly to the Gaia hypothesis that had made sense to me since childhood; Earth as a living organism.
Craig: Tell us about the “Once Upon a Wetland” project and the students’ involvement with the wetland restoration work at the Ojai Meadows Preserve.
Sara: The goal of the “Once Upon a Wetland” project is to connect students with the local watershed environment and to connect students to each other. We do our work with “big” and “little” buddies as well as cross-campus buddies from different schools, bridging age groups as well as public and private school boundaries. The students are engaged in all sorts of stewardship activities like water quality monitoring and litter removal. The backbone of the project is collecting seeds from native plants in the fall, propagating them through the winter, and then planting these baby plants in the Ojai Meadows Preserve wetland in the spring. Once we have restored these native plant communities, the rest of the ecological system can begin to rebuild itself. Our wetland restoration project is building community, locally.
In the process of caring for our local wetland, students are learning about the importance and value of a healthy watershed community, with emphasis on the intrinsic ecological relationships of all things within the watershed and the direct connection of our Ventura River Watershed to the local ocean environment.
Craig: The Ojai Meadows Preserve used to be a wetland. How did the wetland become a meadow?
Sara: Before the early 1900s the Ojai Meadows Preserve, like most of the Ojai Valley, was thick with native oak woodlands. A 1920 aerial photograph of the property shows a vast freshwater marsh that attracted Canada geese, mule deer and even California black bears. But these trees were cleared to make way for cattle grazing and agricultural purposes. Over time, the marsh was filled with sediment, both deliberately and inadvertently from neighboring residential developments. And as parking lots and roads began to appear, the water that once drained naturally from the surrounding land onto the meadow was diverted into gutters and storm drains, sending fouled water right out into sensitive river habitat, eventually polluting the ocean, leaving the wetland high and dry.
In 2001, developers wanted to build a shopping center on the land and thankfully the Ojai Valley Land Conservancy came to the rescue and purchased the 58-acre property, preserving it as open space in perpetuity.
Craig: What methods are required to restore the Ojai Meadows Preserve into a wetland? Is there a timeline for completion?
Sara: Grading work is almost complete and earthmovers have removed all of the sediment that’s filled and choked the wetland. The earthmovers created one large and many smaller basins in the ground that quickly became ponds after the winter rains. These basins will receive runoff from Highway 33, Nordhoff High School and surrounding neighborhoods, simultaneously preventing flooding, cleaning the water, allowing the water to recharge into the ground and creating a vital habitat.
As for a timeline, this project will be ongoing over many years. The face of the land has already completely changed and it will continue to evolve. A year from now it will be full of plants that still need support in establishing themselves. Five years from now it will begin to be self-sustaining and in ten years you won’t recognize it. By the time the kids working on the wetland restoration today have kids of their own, the acorns they planted will be well on their way, and by the time their grandchildren begin walking the meadow, those trees will be lovely towering oaks.
Craig: Have you seen wildlife or native plant life that’s returned or new to the preserve?
Sara: Yes! The restoration really started after the shape of the land at Nordhoff High School was changed. By changing the slope of the land, the campus no longer drained onto Highway 33 causing floods after a rainstorm. The water run off is now directed back onto the preserve and the native seed bank left from that historic wetland of 50 years ago was still viable in the soil. Cattails and native willow trees began to grow. Animal life began to appear, especially the birds! Killdeer and Wilson’s Snipe arrived to enjoy this new wetland habitat. The kids love the Red-winged Blackbirds that frolic amongst the cattails. I look forward to the return of the Canada geese that haven’t been seen in the meadow for the last 50 years!
Craig: The Ojai Valley Land Conservancy owns the Ojai Meadows Preserve. Did they approach Oak Grove School and other schools in the area to help restore the meadow into a wetland?
Sara: “Once Upon a Wetland” is the educational portion of a much larger restoration project managed by the Ojai Valley Land Conservancy. It is an Oak Grove School project that is federally funded through NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration), and also donations from local businesses like Lulu Bandha’s yoga studio. Students at the Ojai Valley School even did their own fundraiser to contribute to the project. Teachers, parents, friends and neighbors have all rallied behind “Once Upon a Wetland” to make it possible. It couldn’t happen without such strong support from our local community.
Craig: Are there other potential restoration projects in the Ojai Valley, which “Once Upon a Wetland” and the Ojai Valley Land Conservancy might partner together?
Sara: There is potential for involving students in work projects on any of the other properties owned by the Ojai Valley Land Conservancy, but one benefit of the Ojai Meadows Preserve is that it is within walking distance from three different schools. There is no need for buses (fossil fuel) to get the kids there.
We are working on organizing river and creek clean-up days for the local community. I’d love to see some watershed improvement projects take place in our community, like the recently completed Tujunga Wash Greenway and Stream Restoration Project down in Santa Monica; they tore out a mile of concrete and replaced it with a mile of creek front pathways.
Craig: Besides your environmental and educational work at Oak Grove School you’re involved with the restoration, and preservation of the Ventura River ecosystem. Are you working directly with the Matilija Coalition or the Surfrider Foundation’s local chapter on this project?
Sara: Yes! High school students from Oak Grove School participate in monthly water quality monitoring in the watershed through Stream Team, a joint program of Santa Barbara Channelkeeper and the Surfrider Foundation. The Matilija Coalition and upcoming removal of the Matilija Dam are a large piece of the restoration puzzle here in our local watershed. The recently formed Ojai Valley Green Coalition is beginning to organize much needed community based advocacy for the upper Ventura River Watershed.
Craig: Can a local citizen volunteer their time and help with restoration of the Ojai Meadows Preserve or the restoration of the Ventura River ecosystem?
Sara: Yes! I can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
And more information about the “Once Upon a Wetland” project can be found at: http://oakgroveschool.com/teaching/wetlands.html
Please visit these links for volunteer opportunities and to connect with the Ventura River Watershed:
The Ojai Valley Land Conservancy:
Ventura River Stream Team:
Ventura River Ecosystem Based Management:
Craig: One last question. You have a passion for birds. Why?
Sara: I love birds, they feel like family. They are almost always around, like another busy layer of community and yet they often go unnoticed. Bird watching is even more fascinating and fun than people watching!
My thanks go out to Sara for taking the time to speak with us. For more on what she does, check out her appearance in this video produced by Rich Reid entitled “Our Ventura River:”