UC Davis and UC ANR receive $10 million for water research and education; Bay Area children will be invited to learn about water's importance to life
A new University of California Cooperative Extension program will teach Bay Area schoolchildren about water through hands-on activities. Funded by a $565,000 USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture grant, the education program is part of a larger research project led by UC Davis Professor Isaya Kisekka, in partnership with multiple institutions and ecologists, to sustain irrigated agriculture while improving groundwater quantity and quality in the Southwest under a changing climate.
4-H Water Wizards, a UCCE-led, inquiry-based, water education project, will include opportunities for students of color to meet with diverse scientists and imagine career possibilities in science, technology, education and math (STEM).
“As a grandparent myself, I'm proud to support the University of California Cooperative Extension's Water Wizards program,” said Nate Miley, Alameda County Board of Supervisors vice president. “This exciting, hands-on learning experience teaches students the importance of water conservation while encouraging good stewardship of our environment.”
With 4-H Water Wizards, students will explore water scarcity, water quality and how they can be a catalyst for change. Students will also take a field trip to UC Agriculture and Natural Resources' Elkus Ranch Environmental Education Center in Half Moon Bay for hands-on learning.
“I am incredibly ‘pumped' for the 4-H Water Wizards program to inspire Bay Area BIPOC [Black, Indigenous and people of color] youth to pursue STEM through connections with water, food and the environment as well as receive mentorship from UC Cooperative Extension scientists,” said Mallika Arudi Nocco, an assistant professor of Cooperative Extension in soil-plant-water relations at UC Davis.
“We want to create an opportunity for urban kids in the Bay Area to experience different surroundings and literally get their feet wet,” said Frank McPherson, director of UC Cooperative Extension in the Bay Area counties of Alameda, Contra Costa, San Mateo and San Francisco. “We expect our hands-on, research-based, experiential learning approach to STEM will stimulate the interest of students who are Black, Indigenous and people of color.”
He envisions students from Hayward and Oakland dipping jars into a gurgling stream that flows through the rolling green hills and canyons of the 125-acre Elkus Ranch so educators can show them some of the organisms that live in the water as part of the natural ecosystem.
“We will collaborate with school districts, teachers and staff on an 11-week program designed to spark environmental learning, increase STEM knowledge and broaden students' understanding of water, sustainable agriculture and conservation,” said McPherson.
Initially UC Cooperative Extension will be reaching out to Bay Area students with a focus on 7th through 10th graders in Alameda County schools with high populations of Black, Latino and other students of color.
“Hayward Unified is excited to partner with UC ANR on the Water Wizards Youth Program to provide students with hands-on learning experiences that encourage inquiry, a provide chance to visit a local Water Education Center, and build environmental literacy for students to take action on water issues in the community,” said Nancy Wright, an elementary science teacher with the Alameda County Office of Education.
The program is designed to provide experiential learning to BIPOC students and encourage them to build upon their own knowledge and skills, McPherson said. “We teach them that water is a valuable and limited resource so that they can make informed decisions,” he explained. “The program also includes a service-learning project that combines learning objectives with community service.”
To adapt 4-H Water Wizards for the Bay Area, McPherson said they are working with Marianne Bird, the UC 4-H youth development advisor who developed after school 4-H Water Wizards programs for Sacramento-area children.
Under Bird's supervision, Capitol Corridor Water Wizards engages about 400 youth each year, predominately at schools in lower-income neighborhoods, where at least 50% of students are eligible for free or reduced-price meals. The Water Wizard participants learn about water cycles, watersheds, salinity, water density and water issues and begin to understand how people, plants and animals depend on water.
McPherson said the NIFA grant will support delivery of the pilot water education program with Alameda County schools. He is currently working to secure funding from other sources to expand Water Wizards to more schools in the Bay Area.
- Author: Mike Hsu
When Laura Snell first came to the far northeastern corner of California, she was amazed to find that the Board of Supervisors in Modoc County – where cows outnumber people by a ratio of 13 to 1 – was composed almost entirely of women.
Snell, who arrived in the high desert town of Alturas in 2015 as the University of California Cooperative Extension livestock and natural resources advisor, said she now has a theory as to why.
“It's a great example of the rural and agricultural lifestyle we have here where women get involved in everything from civic organizations to local government,” she said. “In a lot of ways, there isn't a glass ceiling in an area where everyone is needed and most people are wearing multiple hats to keep the community going.”
Snell has worn the “county director” hat for UCCE in Modoc County since 2017, bringing a range of UC Agriculture and Natural Resources programs to local communities. In the subsequent years, she has established herself as one of the region's most prominent and respected voices.
“Laura is a strong leader, an excellent communicator, and extremely knowledgeable in the fields of wild horses, groundwater, livestock and grazing – among many other topics,” said Geri Byrne, vice chair of Modoc County's Board of Supervisors (which is presently 75% female).
Snell's broad base of knowledge – as well as her bachelor's in water science and master's in agronomy, both from the University of Nebraska – have served her well in her dream job in a “one-advisor” county.
“This is what I always wanted to do – know a little bit about a lot of things and be the person who connected people with what they needed, connecting them with information, connecting them with different experts,” Snell explained.
One of her most recent accomplishments is launching UC Master Food Preserver classes in Modoc County this year. About 130 people – in a county of 9,000 – have been served by this UC ANR program, and four are on the cusp of graduating as Modoc's inaugural class of certified Master Food Preservers. The vast majority of program participants, Snell notes, have been women.
“They're not only preserving for their own families; they're also using these tools and harvesting things from their gardens and then having a value-added product to sell at the farmers market and our local food hub,” said Snell, citing one participant who learned how to make and sell celery salt.
The contributions of women to the local economy, county leadership and organizations such as the Modoc County Cattlewomen's group continue to inspire Snell in her work – and in nurturing the next generation of leaders.
An avid participant in 4-H growing up in Story County, Iowa, Snell said one of the most fulfilling aspects of her job is mentoring the interns who come through her office, and presenting them with opportunities to learn and grow in their careers.
It was a personal connection that brought Snell to Modoc. A former Bureau of Land Management director in the county, who happened to be the father of her college friend, encouraged Snell to apply for the advisor position. So she flew from Nebraska to Reno and then made the three-hour drive north for the interview.
“I loved it; I immediately loved it,” Snell recalled. “I called my parents that night and said, ‘If they offer me this job, I'm staying.' This is it – this is what I've always really wanted to do, but not only that: this is the kind of community I've always wanted to live in.”
Snell – along with her canine companion, an Airedale-German Shepherd-Rottweiler mix named Zuri – have become an essential part of the fabric of Modoc County. She has provided guidance on everything from managing wild horses on the Devil's Garden Plateau to optimizing agritourism operations for greater profitability to improving the livelihoods of farmers and ranchers by alleviating regulatory burdens.
“Working in this county and for this county, for the people here, that's what fills my cup,” she said. “That's what is most satisfying about this work.”
And the county, in turn, has been appreciative of Snell's wide-ranging expertise and unflappable demeanor. According to Supervisor Byrne, Snell has been instrumental in taking on complex issues such as wild horses and the Big Valley Groundwater Sustainability Plan – four years in the making and greatly enhanced by Snell's background in water and her passion for bringing science to the people.
“Laura has a ready smile and manages to stay calm in the face of adversity,” Byrne said. “Modoc is very blessed to have such an articulate, knowledgeable, hard-working and personable director.”
Curious goats milled around the masked elementary school students who were raking out the livestock stalls. After a year of social distancing due to COVID-19 precautions, the goats were enthralled by the youngsters who visited UC Agriculture and Natural Resources' Elkus Ranch Environmental Education Center in San Mateo County.
“The animals were missing kids, they're used to getting more loving,” said Beth Loof, 4-H youth community educator at Elkus Ranch. “Goats are really social. They get distressed when they are alone.”
Tucked behind the rolling green hills of Half Moon Bay off state Route 1, Elkus Ranch is a working landscape that, in a normal year, hosts people from all over the San Francisco Bay Area for field trips, conferences, community service projects, internships and summer camps.
During the pandemic, UC ANR has limited visitors to “social bubbles” of children and adults for outdoor education at the 125-acre ranch, which has implemented a variety of COVID protocols for the safety of visitors. During Adventure Days, young people spend four hours caring for animals, tending gardens, making a nature-themed craft project and hiking around the property.
“We would love to bring children from urban areas of the Bay Area to Elkus Ranch,” said Frank McPherson, director of UC Cooperative Extension for Alameda, Contra Costa, San Mateo and San Francisco counties. “So they can learn where food comes from, before it gets to the grocery store.”
On a sunny spring day, 11 students from Share Path Academy in San Mateo visited for Adventure Day, as their first field trip of the year.
“Coming here and having the hands-on learning, being able to hold objects, touch objects, interact with things, it's all part of learning,” said Erin McCoy, a Share Path Academy teacher. “In science, you can talk about certain things in classes, but when you come out here and you actually apply it to what they're doing and it's tactile for them, at this age, it's really important.”
The group – composed of McCoy, nine fifth-graders, a fourth-grader, a sixth-grader and a couple of parents – spent the day outdoors petting the donkeys, goats, chickens, rabbits and sheep and learning about the animals that live at Elkus Ranch.
“I think it's been a great opportunity for our children to be outdoors and to enjoy nature, to reconnect with the environment – animals, plants, just the outdoors,” said parent Christina Cabrera. “It's great for the children and the adults accompanying them.”
Inside the barn, Loof invited the students to sit on straw bales – not the hay bales, which are food for the livestock. She showed the students how wool that is sheared from sheep's coats is spun into yarn. First, they carded the wool. “You're going to card it like this. It's like brushing your hair, but it has a little resistance so it can be a workout,” Loof said, cautioning the students wearing shorts to be careful not to brush their skin with the sharp, wire teeth of the tool. “Get all the fibers nice and flat, lined up, going one way. Fibers are what we call all the strands of wool.”
After twisting the wool by hand into yarn, the students fashioned the natural-colored fuzzy strands into bracelets.
“We love Elkus,” said McCoy, whose son has attended summer camp at the ranch. “This place is awesome.”
Taking a break for lunch, the group walked down the dirt path from the barn past the livestock pens to wash their hands, then sat at primary-colored picnic tables to eat next to a garden.
After lunch, the students exercised their creativity with buckets of clay to mold into animals or roll out and cut with cookie cutters.
In the chicken coop, Loof, who is one of four community educators who work at Elkus Ranch, shared animal science facts such as, “Eggs are viable for two weeks after the hen sits on them in the nest.” She also told funny stories such as how Dora, the white bantam, escaped the coop and ate all the chard in the garden.
“I wish this was my school,” said one student as he held an egg-laying hen.
The visit ended with a garden tour and a game of hide and seek among the raised beds of onions, squash and other vegetables.
“Being outdoors is an important counterbalance to being on a computer,” said Cabrera, who is also a San Mateo High School wellness counselor. “It's a great addition to what we're doing. Just to be with animals.”
Elkus Ranch is still offering Adventure Days for children; the cost is $425 for 10 people. Small groups are also invited for 90-minute visits.
“If all goes well, we plan to offer a three-day mini-camp Monday through Wednesday of Thanksgiving week,” said Leslie Jensen, Elkus Ranch coordinator.
Firefighting resources are stretched thin because of the amount of wildfire burning throughout California, which means first responders may not be immediately available to protect your home. If you are near, but not in a wildfire evacuation area yet, you can help improve the odds your home will survive.
“There are pre-evacuation steps that can really help your home survive wildfire,” said Yana Valachovic, a fire scientist with the University of California Cooperative Extension.
First make sure you are registered for the proper alerts in your area and follow all evacuation guidance. Pack and be ready to leave at a moment's notice. If at any time you feel unsafe or conditions change quickly, don't wait for an alert to evacuate: Move yourself, your family and pets or livestock to safety.
Even with fire imminent, there are several actions you can do to help prepare your home to withstand fire exposure. UC Cooperative Extension guidance can help residents prepare their home in the days or hours before wildfire exposure.
If you believe you have at least a couple of hours before fire exposure, review the area around your home and outbuildings for items that could lead fire to the structures:
- Move combustible items inside or away from the buildings, especially within the first 5 feet of any structure or attached deck
- Clean your gutters and other places of needle or leaf accumulations on or near the house
- Move BBQ propane tanks away from structures
- Bring in cushions from outside furniture
- Move doormats away from the house
- Seal vents (attic, foundation, drier, etc.) with plywood or heavy foil to prevent embers from entering
- Close all windows and pet doors
“The goal is to remove combustible items away from structures so that embers don't ignite these materials and result in flames touching the house,” Valachovic, UCCE forestry advisor, said. Sealing up vents can help prevent embers, or small bits of burning vegetation, from being blown inside the home.”
If first responders get to your home, Valachovic says you can help them out by leaving a ladder against the house, placing buckets or garbage cans of water around the home, and leaving connected garden hoses in easy-to-locate places. Also, leave out a shovel or other tool that could be helpful to put out small spot fires.
“After you have packed your essentials and your go bag, dress for the evacuation by wearing cotton or wool clothing, a hat, boots, bandanna or mask to protect your nose and mouth, and pack leather gloves,” she said. “These items will help you be prepared if you have to get out of your vehicle or move fallen trees during your escape to safety. Additionally, it may be helpful to pack a shovel, digging bar, chainsaw, or other tools just in case your evacuation route gets blocked.”
As you evacuate, leave gates open or unlocked so first responders can access your property.
If time allows, turn on the lights in your house to increase visibility and leave a note on the door indicating where you went and who is with you. These instructions can help you reunite with your loved ones.
Thinking through these steps and implementing them if fire is near, can help your home and your family survive wildfire. For more evacuation guidance, visit https://ucanr.edu/sites/fire/Safety/Evacuation.
If you have more time to prepare for wildfires, UC Cooperative Extension provides more information at https://ucanr.edu/sites/fire/Prepare, including a fire map and tips for home hardening and defensible space strategies.
When conditions improve, remember to prioritize and implement home hardening and defensible space actions to help prepare for future wildfire exposures.
“Ember-resistant construction relies on awareness of seemingly small details that can make your home vulnerable to embers, in addition to building with appropriate materials, and regular home and property maintenance,”Valachovic said.
- Author: Jeannette E. Warnert
After the destructive LNU Complex Fire burned through farms and ranches where Morgan Doran lives and works, he immediately volunteered to help families and local authorities take care of animal victims.
Nearly 300 animals – mainly horses, sheep, goats and alpacas – were killed during the LNU Complex Fire in Solano County. Some were hit by vehicles, others couldn't escape burning buildings.
“I helped locate animals that needed attention and shared burial and other disposal options and guidelines,” Doran said. He also created an online survey for dead or missing animal reporting.
Doran, also the director of UC Cooperative Extension in Sacramento, Solano and Yolo counties, and his staff and partner organizations – including the USDA Farm Service Agency, Natural Resources Conservation Districts, local resource conservation districts and county officials – have organized a free webinar to help local residents in fire recovery. The webinar is from 9 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 10. Pre-registration is required.
Topics to be covered are:
- Navigating the agency alphabet soup for disaster assistance
- Understanding wildland fire impacts
- Impact of fire on oak woodlands, what to expect and what to do
- Impact of fire on rangelands, what to expect and what to do
- Impact of fire on orchard trees, what to expect and what to do
- Impact of fire on vineyards and wine grapes, what to expect and what to do
- Erosion risks and mitigation measures
- USDA disaster programs and how to apply
In areas where the Moc Fire burned near Moccasin, Calif., UC Cooperative Extension 4-H advisor in the Central Sierra, JoLynn Miller, joined partners to activate Team ELITE (Evacuation of Livestock in Tuolumne Emergencies) so trained volunteers could help move animals to safety and ensure they are fed and housed during the wildfire.
The organization was established in the wake of the 2015 Butte Fire, when officials recognized the need for coordinated animal evacuation planning. They drafted Miller, an experienced horsewoman and community volunteer, to spearhead the group.
“We work closely with and are dispatched by animal control during an emergency,” Miller said. “Team ELITE requires members to be trained in incident command systems and they are sworn Disaster Service Workers once they complete a Team ELITE orientation and training. The Moc Fire was the first fire where we've done evacuations.”
Team ELITE was placed on standby on Aug. 20. A few hours later, three teams were behind the fire lines.
“Volunteers worked throughout the night to pick up animals,” Miller said. “The first night we had donkeys, chickens, horses, alpacas and pigs evacuated.” The animals were held at the Mother Lode Fairgrounds in Tuolumne County.
The team spent three days, Aug. 22-24, feeding and watering animals. Aug. 25 the evacuation orders were lifted and they helped families get their animals back home.
For more information about Team ELITE, see its Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/TeamELITEinformation/
Valuing the losses
Federal, county, CALFIRE and other officials routinely turn to UCCE experts to gather information about the impact of wildfire on agricultural lands.
Two UC Cooperative Extension rangeland advisors, Theresa Becchetti of Stanislaus and San Joaquin counties and Sheila Barry of San Mateo, Alameda, Santa Clara and Contra Costa counties, both cover areas burned by the SCU Fire.
In order for a disaster to be declared and for insurance payouts, a value must be attached to losses caused by the wildfire. In rangeland areas, components of the losses include hundreds of miles of fencing, forage, stock ponds and damage to the soil and seedbank that could impede grass growth for years. Livestock may also be lost in wildfires.
“In some respects, the SCU Fire was an invisible fire because it didn't threaten vineyards or redwoods – landscapes that get more attention. It is grassland, oak woodland and brushland. Some very small pockets of forest,” Barry said. “But it is actually the second largest fire in the state's history.”
Becchetti had previously developed a methodology for calculating forage losses. The two scientists were able to use the system for establishing the economic loss to ranchers and government agencies caused by the blaze. CALFIRE also used the information to inform the distribution of its firefighting resources.
“The Farm Service Agency has told us that the information we put together on the value of the area is enough for the local county committees to declare a disaster, which will release emergency cost share programs,” Becchetti said. “We are continuing conversations with the agencies in the four counties and starting to put information out for ranchers.”
UCCE will host meetings regarding fire recovery and disaster assistance programs. Visit local UC Cooperative Extension websites for details.