Stormwater program has local students making waves


A group of scientists working at schools within the Encinitas Union School District (EUSD) has achieved great success with its Stormwater Pollution Prevention Program (SWPPP), including earning a $720,000 grant to implement its plan and winning an award from the California Stormwater Quality Association.

Even more impressive is that the scientists are actually a group of fifth- and sixth-graders at six local elementary schools; El Camino Creek, Flora Vista, La Costa Heights, Mission Estancia, Ocean Knoll and Olivenhain Pioneer.

The program started in 2013 with just two elementary schools and has expanded each of the past two years. Under the direction of Bill Dean and his colleagues at the environmental education company Dean and Associates, more than 100 students at the local schools have been donning rain gear, gathering data and devising solutions to the stormwater pollution on their campuses.

Dean organizes the program like a business, the students submit applications and are hired as interns. Reducing pollution in those storm drains is important to the students, who know that it eventually flows into the ocean.

“I thought we were making a change in the school in a good way, preventing it from sending out dirty water,” said Ellyanna Cinzori, a sixth-grader at Ocean Knoll.

“I think it’s fun that we get to help save the ocean because I love going to the beach,” added Brenden Muckley, another Ocean Knoll sixth-grader.

The idea for the project came to Dean when he heard a UC San Diego professor give an air quality presentation at an Encinitas Union School District board meeting. Dean was only at the meeting because his daughter Alice Larson, a teacher at Ocean Knoll, was to receive an award.

“A light bulb went off,” Dean explained. “Why can’t we do this with stormwater? How cool would that be where they could gather the date on stormwater quality and take it further by then coming up with solutions on how they could reduce the pollution?”

“I wanted to try it with young students and I felt like if I created a structure for them that they could work in, that they would raise their level of understanding up to it. And they did it.”

Dean’s faith in the fifth- and sixth-graders of the Encinitas area was well-founded, as in June 2015 the SWPPP program got a DROPS grant of more than $700,000 from the California Water Quality Control board. The program also won an award, from the California Stormwater Quality Association, beating out several professional organizations and earning a chance to present at the association’s annual conference in September.

It’s those presentations that Dean and Ocean Knoll Principal Jennifer Bond agree is perhaps the most impressive aspect of the program. Learning that kind of sophisticated communication, they say, will benefit the kids greatly as they grow up and get into the working world.

“Seeing how they start out shy and don’t really feel comfortable talking in front of a group or especially having an educated conversation with strangers on a topic, to now, at the end of the school year, how they are able to present in front of large audiences of people, from students to adults that they don’t know at all … they are just empowered to see that their knowledge and their voice can make a difference,” said Bond, whose daughter Naia Riggenbach is a fifth-grade SWPPP intern.

“To me, that is the biggest impact of the program. It’s really cool because I know that they are going to take this and use it for the rest of their lives.

“When (our fifth- and sixth-graders) are the ones up there presenting to the educators in that field and they are being able to have these conversations, answer their questions, help them get programs started in their communities ... it gives you goose bumps.”

Riggenbach said she and her “co-workers” wore galoshes, raincoats, googles and gloves to collect samples in the rain.

“That was fun!”

Each year there’s a crop of new interns as well as students coming back for their second year. The students have weekly “staff meetings” during lunch to work on the project.

At the beginning of the school year, the students learn about how rainwater collects, picks up pollution, goes into the storm drains and eventually ends up in the ocean. These lessons include studying blueprints of the campus and learning about specific pollutants and their effects.

In November, the visual observations begin with students breaking up into five groups, each one covering a specific drain at their school.

“I thought it was fun how we would go out and take observations from our drain. My favorite time we did it was when we got to check out the construction site (on campus) and observe how it was affecting our drain,” said Ocean Knoll sixth-grader Erica Brunst. “We observed what makes our drain clogged, the sediment and oil, where it comes from and how it gets there.”

Structuring the program like an actual business, Dean said each student has a specific job. They work together to collect stormwater and send it to the Encina Environmental Laboratory for testing, which is specific to the possible pollutants in each drain. For example, the samples from the drain in the parking lot are tested for oil.

“When we ran tests, we had to fill out forms so that when we sent it to Encina, they would know what they were testing for,” explained sampling supervisor Kate Paxton, a sixth-grader at Ocean Knoll.

“It was kind of exciting, it made you feel more grown-up, more in charge of things. It was kind of like running our own little business, which was kind of cool, and making a difference made it a lot better.”

By January, the students have an actual set of hard data and begin to develop and design solutions, which they call Best Management Practices (BMPs).

Students create BMPs in three categories. The first, nonstructural BMPs, can be done immediately. This year, kids at some schools put on assemblies, Olivenhain students made a Pledge Not To Pollute, Flora Vista students distributed comics and the group at La Costa Heights did fundraising for kids dealing with the water problems in Flint, Mich., using that to increase awareness about the pollution in their own storm drains.

The other categories of BMPs are simple structural changes (adding spikes to keep birds away and screens to cover the drain) and the more expensive and involved structural changes (switching out the parking lot pavement with bioswales).

“Our idea was to put a rock wall (around the drain), but have some pieces of the rock open so the water could go in but not the trash, so the water would be cleaner,” fifth-grader Camilla Rodriguez said of her group’s work on the Ocean Knoll drain in the lunch area.

“We worked together as a team to come up with idea.”

After hearing student presentations the past two years, the Encinitas Union School District implemented some of those BMPs, putting screens over some of the drains and even buying a piece of equipment that cleans the lunch area properly.

Finally, near the end of the school year, the actual StormWater Pollution Prevention Plan is written up and presented. While the students work on their public speaking with presentations to their classmates throughout the year, they also take their presentations to much bigger audiences. More than 100 students from the six schools combined speeches and videos, all made by them, in a presentation to the Encinitas school board on May 31.

“After we finished our slides for our BMPs for each group, we would just practice (our presentations) a lot,” said Ocean Knoll sixth-grader Riley Lievers. “I was nervous. (Afterward) it felt like we had done something good.”

The presentation earned high praise from EUSD Superintendent Tim Baird and all five board members.

“I just want to say how impressed I am with your knowledge, your work and your commitment to this program,” trustee Marla Strich told the students following the presentation. “Other districts hire consultants to do this kind of thing, but we have our kids do this for us … and they do it well.”

In addition to the school board, the students have spoken at local rotary clubs and given presentations to the San Diego County Water Utilities Association, the San Diego County Science Education Conference and the San Diego County Office of Education.

With the program having such success in its first three years, Dean and his two other instructors, Kathy Hacker and Camille Sowinski, are looking into bringing SWPPP to all nine EUSD elementary schools next year.