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.

About the Community

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.

Scientist Wanted

Kristen seeks a scientific partner with expertise in urban watersheds that can help determine what kinds of data should be collected to document and analyze the health of the stream ecosystem. Since the stream is dry part of the year, water sampling alone will not suffice. Some examination of water catchment systems will be necessary to better understand and determine what systems work best. In addition, invasive species are particularly problematic. Scientists who have expertise in hydrology, soil science, riparian ecology, and/or urban water systems are needed to develop an easy-to-follow (and easy-to-teach) data collection protocol that also facilitates easy and rapid data sharing, perhaps through a cloud-based program like OpenStreet Map. Ideally, the scientist(s) will represent the diversity of the community.

The scientist should be local to the San Diego area, allowing for easy support for and participation in the ongoing citizen science activities, and encouraging participation of undergraduate and graduate students in the project, especially in helping elementary students prepare to present the results of their research at the culminating event.

Thriving Earth Exchange asks all scientific partners to work with the community to help define a project with concrete local impact that they can contribute to as pro-bono volunteers and collaborators. This work can also position the scientists and communities to seek additional funding, together, for the next stage.


Timeline and Outcome

Work will begin as soon as possible (February 2019). A rough project outline is shared, below. The project will culminate with an Earth Day celebration in April 2020.

  • Mid-February 2019: Scientist(s) identified to work with community
  • March–May 2019: Development of data collection and sharing protocols, and development of scientific questions that students can ask
  • June 2019: Pilot data collection with 3rd and 4th-graders
  • July 2019: Refine protocols as needed
  • August 2019–February 2020: Data collection through citizen science
  • March 2020: Work with elementary students and community members to prepare for celebration; university students participate
  • April 22, 2020: Earth Day and celebratory event


Desired Skills and Expertise

  • Background in hydrology, soil science, riparian ecology, and/or urban water systems
  • Experience working on projects that address urban watershed issues
  • Experience designing and/or organizing citizen science projects preferred, but not required
  • Ability to translate difficult science terminology for a lay audience
  • Willingness to connect science to local concerns
  • Relaxed, easy going personality with a good sense of humor
  • Strong listening and communication skills
  • Competent and open to new ideas
  • The scientist should be able to visit the community in-person and able to observe the neighborhood with community leaders