At the very heart of Sonoma County flows the beloved Russian River. This ancient, beautiful, integral resource provides precious water for drinking, fish and wildlife habitat, agriculture, and recreation; as such its value is inestimable. Yet our river is under constant assault from both nature (drought, flooding) and our own acts (overuse, pollution, diversion). As California’s unprecedented lack of rain has impacted our lives, the river becomes increasingly stressed. Fortunately there are dedicated and watchful river guardians: Sonoma County’s Russian Riverkeeper  (RRK) chief among them.

Mission: Russian Riverkeeper inspires the community to protect the Russian River forever.

The organization has evolved and strengthened through advocacy, education, collaboration and celebration of all things Russian River. It began in 2001 as Friends of the Russian River and is now part of Waterkeeper Alliance, with over 200 chapters worldwide, as well as California Coastalkeepers Alliance. Regional and local partnerships with organizations such as Sonoma Land Trust, Sonoma County Open Space District, Laguna Foundation and others have been forged, resulting in more effective advocacy and outcomes.

One of those key partnerships is their environmental education work with Sonoma County high schools. “What we find so interesting about Russian Riverkeeper,” says Elly Grogan of Community Foundation Sonoma County, “is how their Clean Campus Clean Creeks program connects students with nearby nature and issues of water quality, enhancing their understanding of human impact via the urban environment. It affords an excellent combination of academic content linked to standards, project-based learning via inquiry and investigation, presentation and leadership skills, and workforce development through landscape installation. This is a prime environmental education program in our grants portfolio that serves multiple Sonoma County geographies, including north to Cloverdale.”

In the community foundation model of philanthropy, when a grassroots organization receives a small grant that leads to ever greater and diversified community benefits, it just doesn’t get much better. Innovative and effective educational programs have earned RRK not only several grants from CFSC, but has led to statewide acclaim and adoption. In 2009, RRK submitted a grant application to Healdsburg Area Fund to underwrite the exploration and design of a new pilot program at Healdsburg High School, “Students Improving Water Quality.” A $3,500 grant was awarded and the program became “Clean Campus Clean Creeks,” one that meets three state curriculum standards for science.

Executive Director, Don McEnhill, who grew up enjoying life on the banks and in the water of the river, says “We wanted to further develop our concept to educate and engage students on the topic of rainwater – to get them out of classrooms to look at campus as a watershed – and figure out what’s wrong with it and fix it. This program was tailored to students not necessarily going to college – who might most benefit from knowledge of the land. We saw a nexus between future job opportunities, the green economy and students.” Two additional grants allowed Riverkeeper to improve and expand to include other area high schools (Elsie Allen, Montgomery, Cloverdale, El Molino, Healdsburg – Marce Becerra Academy) while continuing at Healdsburg High.”

Good work earns its just rewards. This local success is now a model program statewide. Riverkeeper McEnhill explains, “We were asked to provide examples of multi-benefit projects or programs that could help reduce the impact of the drought while achieving water quality, quantity and sustainability goals. We knew Clean Campus Clean Creeks met all those criteria and educated students. We provided information, including pictures of students working on projects at Healdsburg High. The information was used at the 2014 Drought Symposium to inform the Governor and state leadership on actions they could take to alleviate drought impacts.

“That exposure led to the creation of the $25.2 million grants program called Drought Response Outreach Program to Students (DROPS) funneled through the State Water Board and based on our Clean Campus Clean Creeks model — originally supported by that one small grant. In 2015, Riverkeeper submitted a $1.4 million grant application for state DROPS funding in partnership with the Sonoma County Office of Education. Our goal was to expand the program to seven new local schools and continue at HHS and MBA. This amazing accomplishment came years ahead of our long-term goal to implement Clean Campus Clean Creeks widely within 10 years of its inception.

“We are beyond proud to say that in 2016 the same Clean Campus program working so well here will be implemented in Los Angeles area schools. The students will be building rain gardens and bioswales and participating schools will set a living example of water sustainability in their neighborhoods.”

McEnhill, his board of directors, employees and volunteers all appreciate and fully credit the Healdsburg Area Fund and parent organization Community Foundation Sonoma County as essential partners and innovative collaborators. “Community foundations know their territory, and so do a better job of helping organizations in need while providing a community benefit. We are amazingly blessed here in so many ways, and one of those is our community foundation. They provide local solutions for local problems — it’s a smarter way to deploy philanthropy,” says McEnhill.

Applying for and receiving grants has resulted in ever-opening doors for Russian Riverkeeper. It started with working relationships with knowledgeable CFSC staff and includes a now-15-year-old relationship with an anonymous donor who gifts through the foundation. And don’t forget the DROPS story. Even Mother Nature has elevated the work of RRK. The drought has expanded their focus from pollution to the impacts of drought / flood cycles and how to overcome them.

Growing, forming collaborations, sharing programs and learning on a state level – and most of all safeguarding the Russian River – Russian Riverkeeper sets an example for us all.

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