“Kids in Canyons” – Watershed days for San Diego

One of San Diego most distinctive features - its canyons - are disappearing in a sea of urbanization. Now, hands-on programs teach students the importance of the canyons, and how to help preserve this beloved natural resource.

by Eric Bowlby, Mary Ann Sandersfeld, and Tershia d'Elgin


an Diegans love their neighborhood canyons. They are an escape to nature from an otherwise completely paved and urbanized environment. The canyons are part of San Diego’s DNA and our unique landform. The awareness of their importance to our identity, our environment, and our quality of life is becoming increasingly clear as the city’s development unfolds.

    Many of our cherished urban canyons are coming under threat of damaging urban encroachment. As a case in point, the City Council is expected to vote this year on building a bridge across one of the most environmentally sensitive locations in Rose Canyon Regional Park in University City. In another case, several acres of the Thirty-Second Street Canyon may be filled and leveled to provide a larger playing field for an elementary school under development on the canyon ridgeline.

    The Sierra Club Canyons Campaign has been successfully fostering awareness, appreciation, and community involvement in stewardship of San Diego’s unique open space canyons for five years. Now, the program is expanding in a variety of ways, including a greater focus on San Diego’s youth.

Take a hike


    More than 60 ten-year-old students got a fresh look at their own neighborhood canyon on Monday, February 28th, when they spent the morning in Thirty-Second Street Canyon in San Diego. They were able to walk to the canyon from Kimbrough Elementary in South Park, to what we hope will remain their nearby “nature classroom.”

    After being shown an aerial view of North Park and South Park canyons – surrounded by a sea of urbanization – the students eagerly set off into the canyon carrying clipboards, pencils and binoculars.

    A tour of the stream course focused on the jobs canyons do: filtering water and air, conserving energy, and providing homes for local wildlife. They were fascinated with the flowing creek, the flowering plants, the insects, butterflies, worms, soaring hawks, and yes, a coyote stepped out of the bushes to have a glimpse at the crowd before scurrying off to a distant part of the canyon.

    Students then helped rebuild the canyon floor by planting cuttings from a native wetland species called “mule fat” along the stream banks and sowing native deer grass seeds. This was their little contribution to an ongoing restoration project in the canyon, led by the 32nd Street Canyon Friends Group. The group had received grant funding for the removal and mulching of more than four acres of the invasive arundo donax – a 12-foot-tall cane-like grass that aggressively takes over habitats along the creeks in the floors of our canyons.

    The students learned why native vegetation and habitat is critically important to the many endangered and threatened species we have in San Diego County. They found out that settlers used to tie their mules to the streamside vegetation, and the mules would eat it; thus the common name “mule fat” was born. They learned that native-American hunters used to rub the fragrant coastal sages on their bodies so that their prey would not catch their scent and flee.

    Following the tour and the restoration work, the students gathered under a tree, where a red-tailed hawk often perches, to write their impressions of the experience.

Classroom in the field


    The three-part curriculum helped teachers meet instructional content-standards set forth by the State of California in the areas of life science, history/social science and English/language arts. The rich outdoor adventure helped them reach their teaching objectives.

    The excursion was organized by environmental educators from AquaticAdventures, widely respected for wetlands instruction delivered to schools in underserved communities. They also orchestrate an annual wetland restoration event at the mouth of the San Diego River that involves more than 600 students each year. The visit marked the first upstream field trip and the kick off of the new “Kids in Canyons” program being developed in partnership with Sierra Club’s San Diego Canyons Coalition.

    With guidance from Aquatic Adventures, the curriculum was designed by the Thirty-Second Street Canyon Task Force, the Canyons Coalition and Eco Expressions, with the intention of developing an instructional program that will work in many San Diego canyons.

    Aquatic Adventures hopes to bring kids from 6 different schools per year into their local neighborhood canyons. There they will learn that they live in a watershed and what that means – and how urban pollutants are carried by the rain from our yards and streets and through the canyons before reaching the coast where we love to swim, surf and otherwise enjoy our aquatic environment. The hope is that the kids and their families will become part of their local canyon friends group and continue a legacy of nurturing the wildlife oasis that San Diego canyons have become.

    Aquatic Adventures has received funding from Sea World to build the “Kids in Canyons” program. Thirty-Second Street Canyon Task Force is creating a Canyonlands Water Education Toolkit.

Every canyon needs friends

    The Sierra Club is introducing Aquatic Adventures to the established Canyon “friends groups” that can provide the on-the-ground coordination needed to pull off the field trips. The Friends of Rose Canyon, for example, has more than 1,200 members; there have been educational tours in Rose Canyon for years.

    Thirty-Second Street and Rose Canyon are among the 30 new friends groups that the Sierra Club Canyons Campaign has been organizing around neighborhood canyons throughout San Diego over the past five years. Most of the new groups are meeting regularly, often on a monthly basis, to battle invasive plant species, plant natives and remove debris carried into the canyons by wind, water and people. Participants are neighbors that are getting together for a common cause, and may otherwise never have met each other.

    Together, Aquatic Adventures, the Sierra Club Canyon Campaign and the many Canyon Friends Groups are utilizing the educational opportunities the canyons provide by bringing the students into their local nature classrooms.

    To learn more about the Kids in Canyons program and Aquatic Adventures contact: Shara Fisler, (858) 488-3849, sharafisler@aquaticadventures.org.

    To learn more about, contribute to, or volunteer for the Sierra Club's San Diego Canyons Campaign contact: Eric Bowlby, 619-284-9399, savewetlands@compuserve.com, or visit the Canyons Coalition website: www.sandiego.sierraclub.org/canyons, where you can find a canyons group near you – or to get connected to learn how to start one. Click “Photos from Past Events” to see a slide show of the 32nd Street “Kids in Canyons” tour or other tour events.