Southern California is famous for its beaches, but not many people know it’s home to one of the most unique river ecosystems in the world, the 110-mile Santa Ana River, which is fed by many smaller tributaries. It’s such a special environment that famed biologist E.O. Wilson named it one of the world’s 10 biological hotspots, according to Megan Brousseau, director of the nonprofit organization Inland Empire Waterkeeper. The Riverside, California, group has worked hard to restore these waters and to protect them from pollution.
“People don’t know this river is a riparian forest, with great white egrets and blue heron, and home to an endangered species that lives nowhere else in the world, the Santa Ana suckerfish,” she says. “We are absolutely responsible for this species continuing or disappearing, right here in little old California.”
Brousseau spends a lot of time educating people about their personal part in pollution, and motivates them to recycle and reuse by getting them down to the river, where they can see the effects with their own eyes. By bringing their attention to the intersection between the natural world and their own consumption, she’s better able to encourage recycling and proper disposal.
Because consumers are able to “vote with your dollars,” as Brousseau points out, they are able to hold manufacturers and corporations responsible for pollution. Emphasizing that the natural world is our home and needs our help, she reminds us that we should insist on buying products with post-consumer recycled content, and to avoid things that can’t be recycled at all.
“Overall, what we’re working on is creating ownership and pride,” Brousseau says. “If there is no ownership, then there will be no stewardship. What we really want to do is give this river back to the people. We are cleaning it not only to make it safe and to recreate, but by getting [people] down there, they start to feel like it’s theirs.”
Thanks to her organization’s cleanup efforts, the portion of the river that runs through Riverside—creeks and streams once too full of trash and toxins for anyone to swim or play in them—are now host to kids’ educational summer camps and recreational play that teaches personal responsibility.
People have trouble understanding how “a little landlocked city 50 miles from the ocean can be contributing to trash in the ocean,” she says. Yet when they bring kids down to the river beach to pick up trash, the idea becomes very clear. “I say to the kids, ‘How many apple cores do you see? How many pieces of steak? None. The point is: Whole foods don’t contribute to litter.”
The obvious answer to getting trash out of the water, she says, “is to keep [trash] where it is supposed to be. Make sure it makes it to the actual receptacle or recyclable facility by not getting it into the street.”
Brousseau feels that stewardship, which includes teaching the importance of recycling, should be a part of the curriculum at every grade level. “We would never give somebody a car and not teach them how to pump gas, steer, or change a flat tire. Even in the most remedial job, you give them the tools to do it right. We release our kids with no tools on how to care for this earth. The river is an outdoor education space that is free to 10 schools within walking distance that are Title 1 impoverished,” says Brousseau.
With grant funding, Inland Empire Waterkeeper has been able to sponsor a summer river camp for kids. Under the guise of fun experiments like inspecting the water under microscopes, collecting aquatic insects, and testing water quality, the camp teaches them good habits for life, like recycling and reusing. “All of my life I was told: ‘Don’t drop that chip bag, it will end up in the ocean,’” says Brousseau. But today’s kids are not as aware of the connection between trash and our waterways. “Many kids think I’m full of it, until I take them down for these cleanups and show them the huge pipe dumping right into the river and the Mylar Capri Sun packaging floating by.”
Thanks to grants and a partnership with Arrowhead Mountain Spring Water, parts of the Santa Ana River are on their way back to recreational health. At a joint last cleanup at Mill Creek, volunteers pulled more than 4,500 pounds of trash from the urban stream, including such egregiously dumped items as shopping carts, tires, and carpet rolls. The group has since initiated a program that redirects thousands of pounds of housing and landscape development materials by setting up drop-offs for hazardous trash and big, bulky items.
Brousseau understands that when it’s easy for people to recycle and dispose of waste, they’re more likely to do so in the proper ways.
Still, she stresses the importance of the individual’s power to effect change. “Instead of complaining about what isn’t working, we need to take control and write the laws that reflect the way we want to live. And all the companies that want to do business are going to do it within those boundaries. It’s not fast, but it’s simple.”
“I’m not saying to let corporations off the hook, but responsibility lies with us. We make, craft, and pass the laws and need to put the effort into where we want to see the change being made.”