Carmen Tristan

Ecology and Environment

Biology 4400

29 April, 2002

Working Systematically:

Students, Teachers, and Community Restoring the Sisters Creek.


Supervising a two-year-old is like “nailing Jell-O to a tree,” goes the old saying.  Perhaps, getting Dominican’s staff and students as well as the local and national agencies to agree on a definition of sustainability to restore the Sisters creek, is, like “nailing Jell-O to a tree,” but maybe not. 

As we all know, themes of sustainability deal with nature, the economy, society and often all three combined.  They are about the pace of modification and about equal treatment among generations.  An environmental sustainable society guides its economy and population size without doing irreversible environmental damage; it fulfills the needs of its people by harvesting without exhausting the Earth’s capital and protects the prospects of future generations of humans and other species.  All of us should see sustainability as a steadily developing process.

In the book Ecological Design the authors bring to the readers’ attention that the word sustainability has become a kind of mantra for the 1990s.  Adding, “in search of comfort, convenience, and material wealth, we have begun to sacrifice not only our own health, but also the health of all species.  We are starting to exhaust the capacity of the very systems that sustain us, and now we must deal with the consequences,” concluding with “sustainability can be viewed from two places, the province of policy makers and environmental experts flying at thirty-five thousand feet from conference to conference […] or sustainability as the domain of grassroots environmental and social groups, indigenous people preserving traditional practices, and people committed to changing their own communities." (Van Deer Ryn-Cowan, 1996, Pg. 4).  In my research I saw the importance of community and the local participation in creek restoration.

Understanding the basic patterns and processes by which nature sustains life and using these essential concepts of ecology to give birth to sustainable human communities can give people the tools to become ecologically literate.  In the work titled Ecoliteracy-Mapping the Terrain, ecological literacy means perceiving the world as an interrelated whole.  We can detect relationships between phenomena at different levels from the individual, the classroom, the educational institutions, the district, and the environmental human communities and ecosystems.  (Capra, 2000,Pg. 28).  As we watch the Dominican campus grown and expand, we can give birth to relationships among the many different kinds of people that impact the campus and a grassroots approach, which could transform the health and the habitat of the Sisters creek.

The design of my grassroots attempt is to research innovative ideas and learn about other environmental groups, so that Dominican campus’ community could begin to restore and sustain the Sisters creek.  My intent is to create a grassroots approach, where ordinary citizens contrasted with local political, social and economic groups, can begin the basis of the Dominican creek restoration project.  Furthermore, the Sisters creek restoration project can be student driven as a support mechanism.  A project that can involve the faculty, the administration, the Science Club, the student government, the student body, and Dominican’s neighbors.

The restoration process could become an ongoing project as part of the required Biology 4400-Ecology and Environment class in the way of seminars, science theses and actual work on the creek.  This process can give the student body and the other communities involved a sense of “campus pride.”  Through environmental project-based learning, everyone can take more responsibility for his or her learning, by also including Dominican’s community and perhaps the city of Marin’s Water agency, the Department of Fish and Game, consultants and local non-profit organizations.

The Sisters creek has many ecological issues that need to be addressed.  The word sustainability comes to mind and it is the foundation for the grassroots project, to go from a elaborate environmental and biological abstraction, to the mere beginnings of being able to know and research what to do to restore the creek and with whom to do it with.

We could enhance the creek’s natural habitat, improve water quality, work on grading and removal of vegetation, erosion control, re-vegetation, trees, grass, shrubs and wildflower maintenance, and preserve any endangered species.  We could look into long-range scientific experiments, such as native species establishment, invasive species eradication and effects.  Also links between restoration and creek functioning, such as water flow, aquatic life, or water quality.

As Joanne Tippet, Dominican’s faculty member, who has added exceptional ideas to the Biology 4400 class being taught this semester, suggested, “we could do environmental science projects, create attitudes towards public participation in restoration, as well as the history and culture of the creek; the idea is also to build a data base of information and repository of projects – which can highlight the work that Dominican is doing for potential students, as well as provide a good base line data for further projects.”

There are many major areas of concern for those whose goals are to have a healthy creek.  “The first one is to save existing healthy creeks from impacts of urban development by putting land-use regulation in place. A common destroyer of creeks is the placement of structures too close to creek’s banks creating erosion and flood hazards – an expense that is usually borne by the community taxpayer.  Another concern is to use the most environmentally sensitive stream-channel maintenance practices by engineering officials, like the removal of culverts and concrete linings.  Addressing water pollution through conventional treatment facilities and restoration methods and the need for an adequate water supply for life in the stream.”  (Riley, 1998, Pg. 9).  These are areas of concern that must be addressed as we attempt to restore the Sisters creek.

Starting a grassroots approach can become difficult as one gathers the names of people and organizations and learns the interests of the people involved.  I first contacted Jim Cunningham, a faculty member in the Biology department at Dominican; he made some time for me and was kind enough to steer me in the right direction.  Later on, as I was leaving campus I met with Sibdas Ghosh, the chair of the Natural Sciences and Mathematics Department.  Though he is always very busy, he took the time to give me several names of people on campus that would want to help and lend their support to the creation of this grassroots approach.  The process of finding the people and networking was much easier than explaining the conditions that the creek is in and how one can start restoring it, since no one, to my knowledge, had taken the time to research and document its history.

I talked to Rebecca Little from Dominican’s Science club who added to my enthusiasm with the following: “I am very excited about your interest in restoring the Sisters creek.  It is long over due.  I would most certainly help you in your quest; we may be able to get local sponsors, schools, and the neighbors to help fund or work with us,” concluding with “it may be an uphill battle but I look forward to the adventure.” And indeed, an uphill battle it is. 

Jessica Frederick, Dominican’s VP of student government was very excited about the possibilities of restoration and suggested that I could possibly meet with the student government body to talk about the future of the Sisters creek.  She mentioned that Dominican’s faculty member, Peter Thut, was going to work with a freshman Biology major to work on the vegetative sampling and perhaps turn the project into a sort of senior thesis.

The next day I called the Bay Institute and within 24 hours I had the pleasure to meet Chris Choo, Watershed Education Coordinator.  Chris was the first person that suggested I carefully research how much work it takes to develop a group that wants to do restoration.  I suddenly felt like I had gone from looking at the “creek” to looking at the “ocean” in terms of how massive restoration can become.  The Bay Institute’s mission statement says it all: “To protect and restore the ecosystems of San Francisco Bay, the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and the rivers, streams and watersheds tributary to the estuary.” (  The words “protect and restore” were key issues for me to focus on and keep on researching more local groups.

I learned about the institute’s well known STRAW Project who coordinates and sustains a network of teachers, students, community members and restoration specialists as they plan and implement watershed studies and restoration projects in Marin and Sonoma counties.  STRAW provides teachers and students with the scientific, educational and technical resources to prepare them for hands-on, outdoor watershed studies, including ecological restoration of riparian corridors.  STRAW’s overarching goals are to empower students, support teachers, restore the environment and reconnect communities. 

After meeting with Chris Choo and learning about groups like the STRAW project, I knew there were more possibilities to “reconnect” Dominican’s community.  Having met her gave me an insight of how large the possibilities were and the certainty that I could not do it alone.  I needed to involve many different people and their points of view about the creeks, sustainability, and restoration.

As per Ann L. Riley, in her book, Restoring Streams in Cities, Guide for Planners, Policymakers, and Citizens, “citizens movements are developing in all parts of the country to try to prevent the loss of remaining urban creeks; to respond to development pressures and flood-control projects; to bring back fish and aquatic life in urban creeks; […] to use creeks as ‘outdoors classrooms’ for school projects; and even to recover creeks buried in culverts […] riparian woodland areas, and adjacent wetlands are now recognized to be some of the most important wildlife habitat and sanctuaries in the country.  (Riley, 1998, Pg. xvii).  After reading this book, I knew that there were other citizens outside of Dominican and Marin creating movements and developing sustainable solutions to the many environmental issues involved in creek restoration.

Chris Choo of the Bay Institute also introduced me to the Environmental Education Council of Marin’s executive director, Sandy Wallenstein, and she immediately hinted at forming a group as well, “I would suggest finding out if there is a group of students who are interested, a core group on campus.” She also suggested the following contacts. Marin Conservation Corps and McStopp’s Liz Lewis.  The Environmental Education Council of Marin has an interesting, if not, bold mission statement and vision:  “Our mission is to build an ever-increasing coalition of youth and adults committed to preserving the diverse environments in Marin County through education, stewardship, and sharing of resources.”

            Their vision is inspirational and long range, as my grassroots approach would have to be, their web site states the following: “Our vision is that by the year 2005, environmental education in Marin County, California, will be a lifelong learning process that:

Inspires appreciation of the world around us

Strengthens connections between our local schools, communities and

their shared environments


Is culturally and linguistically inclusive


Increases our knowledge and awareness of environmental and related social challenges facing our society


Develops the skills, expertise and commitment necessary to address these challenges by taking responsible action


Integrates ecological needs with human needs


Encourages shared leadership and meaningful action


Is relevant to every individual, available to every individual and

sustained over a lifetime


Our efforts are focused in Marin County, its environment, communities and

resources, highlighting current relevant environmental situations as well as

the historical context that makes our county what it is today.

Again, the words inspirational, strength, inclusive, awareness, commitment, ecological, leadership, communities, were words that keep me going since I was getting slightly overwhelmed and felt that I had taken a enormous endeavor.

Dominican’s Michael Henkes came to my aid the moment I started to visualize and understand the need to restore the Sisters creek habitat and create a long-term goal.  Even though he did not know the original name of the creek, only known to most people as Sisters creek, he did know that the creek flows in the bay via the San Rafael creek.

Michael is in charge of the facilities and the grounds on campus; he goes beyond the call of duty to make sure that the grounds look beautiful and at the same time, he cares about the environment.  A man with as much knowledge as Michael I had no met, but he was the key to understanding how I could focus and learn to see the big picture of my grassroots approach.

When I finished meeting with Michael I had learned the name of yet another powerful group that could influence the creek restoration project, the Department of Fish and Game.  Within three days of having heard the name, I was invited to a meeting and met a very valuable person whose job is to be the Watershed Restoration Planner in the North Bay and Central Coast Region, representing the Department of Fish and Game, Ms. Gail Seymour.  She quickly asked me very smart questions and gave me many suggestions regarding the health of the creek. 

The following are many of the recommendations she quickly emailed to me: “a suggestion would be to visit the creek at different times of the day, if possible and take notes (with dates and time of day) on the type of vegetation that exists along the banks, wildlife (aquatic and terrestrial); how the quality of the water looks (clear, murky, full of algae, etc.); she also addressed the issue of the creek’s water, by suggesting the following:

“What is the creek’s water temperature, are there trees shading the creek?   How deep is the water?  Is it flowing?  The linear length of the creek that you’re observing and the landmarks surrounding this reach of creek you’re observing on the campus; also note if any water in the creek is being piped out or if any water from the campus is being discharged into the creek.  I would network with groundskeepers, faculty, alumni, County of Marin Public Works Department and local environmental groups.  If part of this creek runs through a neighborhood or community, check with neighborhood associations or community groups.  In many instances, valuable information (about any subject!) is discovered through word of mouth.”

            Gail Seymour then took it upon herself to send me the following information on the watershed and the habitat of the creek:

Preliminary Watershed Assessment

We need an assessment to:

·        understand the processes at work in the watershed including geology, topography, hydrology, geomorphology, vegetation, land uses and human impacts

·      Become familiar with historical stream, fish, and land use surveys, literature and reports.

·        provide basic information on past and present natural resources management, and on present   and potential fish production

·        provide statistical information on water and fish habitat quantity and quality

·        help us determine where we need more information and data to give us a complete "picture" of the trends and events that created the current conditions in the watershed

·        Aid in assessing needs for additional studies

Often, most of the information necessary for a watershed assessment can be gathered prior to going in the field.  Literature searches, review of historic photographs and maps and compilation of existing data from various agencies, organizations, and individuals are utilized in the preliminary assessment.

Habitat Typing

We need habitat typing to:

Identify fish usage and habitat conditions

Give us the data necessary for stream analysis and planning

Determine potential fish habitat restoration projects

Prioritize restoration in watersheds

Determine the need and range of suitable structures suitable to the stream channel type

Some questions we ask that can be answered by habitat typing are:

Where are the creeks that still have good habitat, which ones have restorable areas, and where is suitable habitat no longer present?

Where are the stream reaches that have high loading of fine sediment?

Where do the fish successfully spawn?

Where are there barriers to fish migration?

Where are there adequate riparian buffers?

What areas need restored riparian buffers?

Where might conservation easements be pursued to protect existing riparian?

            My last visit with Sister Aquinas Nimitz, who after listening to my proposal of restoration, reminisced about seeing fish in the creek back in the 60s.

            I am clear, as I conclude the mere beginnings of my creek restoration research, that I have barely “scratched the surface.” And that I will not see fish running through the Sisters creek any time soon. But I am sure that restoration can be done.  By involving many community groups and having them agree on the needs of the creek and its sustainability as Dominican’s campus expands and grows.  The greatest value of a restoration project may be the new sense of community unity or neighborhood pride created for the participants.  A sense of community which we all felt in the class’ final field trip on campus; when we all got our hands in the dirt; we dug, we pulled roots, we planted native plants; we learned that the actual work is hard and yet rewarding.  As Riley states: “At worst, public opposition could stop a restoration project because key people felt left out of the decision making, […] at best, the failure to obtain public participation is a lost opportunity for assuming long-term maintenance and vigilance for the project.” Riley, 1998, Pg. 31)




Capra, Fritjof Ph.D.  Ecoliteracy-Mapping the Terrain. Berkeley, Ca: Learning in the Real World Center for Ecoliteracy Publishing, 2000.


Choo, Chris.  Personal interview.  11 March 2002.


Cunningham, Jim.  Personal interview.  25 March 2002.


Frederick, Jessica.  Personal interview. 3 March 2002.


Henkes, Michael.  24 April 2002.


Rebecca Little. Personal interview. 3 March 2002.


Ghosh, Sibdas. Persona interview. 3 March 2002.


Seymour, Gail.  Personal interview.  17 April 2002.


Riley, Ann L.  Restoring Streams in Cities: A guide for Planners, Policymakers, and Citizens. Washington DC: Island Press, 1998.


Van der Ryn, S, Cowan S.  Ecological Design.  Washington DC: Island Press, 1996.