Leveraging Citizen Science to Increase Watershed Education and Restoration

San Diego, California

Featured image for the project, Leveraging Citizen Science to Increase Watershed Education and Restoration

Photo Courtesy of Kristen Hurst


Chollas Creek, which traverses through the neighborhood of Encanto, is a diverse community located in southeast San Diego, California. Today, there are as many as 35 languages or dialects spoken in local schools. The community faces multiple challenges including drug- and gang-related crime, and increasing homelessness. These issues cause many residents to feel unsafe in their neighborhoods. The median income is well below the San Diego average, and many residents experience asthma, obesity, diabetes, and other long-term health challenges often associated with poverty. Community members have little to no access to green space, and the creek system (Chollas Creek) that runs through the community to the bay is polluted, serving as a dumping ground for large trash items. The area has also recently become a location for a growing homeless population to set up encampments. While creek restoration has been a priority for the city of San Diego as a whole, southeast San Diego has been underserved and possibly even ignored by the city in these efforts.

The goal of the Chollas Creek project is to encourage the community and its leaders to invest in the creek’s future, recognizing its history and potential for becoming a safe, healthy, enjoyable, and educational place, through engaging in citizen science.

Project Impacts: By bringing the community together around a common goal, the community leaders will be able to bring the needs of this underserved community to the forefront of policy- and decision-makers. The data collected through the citizen science project will provide the evidence needed for the city and others to take action to clean up and restore the creek system—including providing the evidence needed to write a proposal for funds authorized under Proposition 68 to create equitable access to parks and open spaces. In addition, the project will result in a community that is more educated about their watershed, the impacts of their actions, and about how science works.

Project Outputs: In order to achieve these impacts, the scientist(s) will work with the community leaders to develop easy-to-understand and use protocols for data collection and data sharing that can be used widely by upper-elementary students and their parents. The results of the citizen science project will be celebrated at a major event timed to coincide with Earth Day, 2020, which will showcase student research projects, art projects for installation along the creek, and neighborhood design charrettes to re-envision the creek system. Key city council and district representatives will be invited to the celebration and feel empowered to elevate the community’s work in the eyes of the city.

Project Team

Project Coordinator

Indraneel Kasmalkar is a PhD student in Computational and Mathematical Engineering at Stanford University. Neel’s research interests lie broadly in the realm of sea level rise. For his PhD dissertation, he studies the physics behind why Antarctica and Greenland are losing ice so rapidly and how it will impact coastal communities over the next few decades. Neel is also part of the Stanford Sustainable Urban Systems team which investigates the impacts of coastal flooding and sea level rise in the San Francisco Bay Area. In particular, he studies how flooded roads can change traffic patterns and further worsen congestion in the Bay Area.

Neel completed his Bachelor of Arts in Mathematics at University of California, Berkeley in 2015 and his Masters in Computational and Mathematical Engineering at Stanford University in 2018.


Community Lead

Kristen Hurst is the community lead for the project. Hurst is an elementary science teacher and employee of the non-profit GroundWork-San Diego. She is deeply connected to the community, teaches at two elementary schools, and serves as a leader in neighborhood council. She also serves on the board of EarthLab, an outdoor climate action park serving over 3,000 students and their families each year. She already has connections with professors at University of California San Diego and San Diego State University and seeks to expand those connections to include scientists with expertise in hydrology, riparian ecosystems, and soils. Kristen is committed to coordinating and developing the neighborhood network and engaging her students and other teachers in the citizen science project.


Science Liaisons

Kirstin Skadberg is the president of Kirstin Skadberg Consulting, an environmental consulting company, and an adjunct professor at the University of San Diego where she teaches Environmental Assessment Practices. She got her Ph.D. in ecology from the UC Davis/SDSU Joint Doctoral Program in 2008, where she studied CO2 exchange between the atmosphere and coastal oceans. After the Ph.D., Kirstin began working for an environmental consulting firm and has been in the business ever since. In 2017 she started her own company. Kirstin also works with Groundwork San Diego, a nonprofit organization which aims to improve conditions in the Chollas Creek watershed in south San Diego.  Working with Groundwork, Kirstin has managed two creek restoration projects and contributed to educational programs and grant proposals.


Carly Ellis is a Field Researcher at the Center for Western Weather and Water Extremes, part of Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego. She is extremely passionate about soggy science (i.e. wading into streams and rivers during precipitation events to collect water quality samples and measure stream flow velocities). Prior to landing at Scripps, she earned her Masters in Environmental Science and Policy at Plymouth State University, where she completed her thesis on the temporal variability of aluminum concentrations in stream water. She attributes much of her success to her undergraduate research experiences in the Finger Lakes Region of New York and in the Hubbard Brook Experimental Forest of New Hampshire. When Carly is not working, she is likely hiking, skiing, napping, or attempting to surf!