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Students become water conservation pros amid state's historic drought

Students become water conservation pros amid state's historic drought
The beginnings of a drought-resistant garden at Lawrence Middle School. (Courtesy Theodore Payne Foundation)

Inspired by a horticulturist and botanist who in the 1900's introduced more than 430 species of native plants to the public, the Theodore Payne Foundation for Wild Flowers and Native Plants is a nonprofit established in 1960 to promote, preserve and restore California landscapes and habitats.

The foundation has since earned a reputation for its programs to teach students in the Los Angeles Unified School District the vital ecological link between native plants, insects and other animals.


Above all, students learn the water-saving benefits of native plants and the crucial ecological function that plants fulfill.

"The Theodore Payne Foundation works in a variety of ways with the district to teach students about conserving water and supporting biodiversity through landscaping with native plants," said Lisa Novick, director of outreach and K-12 education at the foundation, which is headquartered in Sun Valley. "Our K-12 education and the field trip and classroom outreach programs all include water conservation and California's drought history as a major focus."


Students learn that native plants, which use one-seventh the water of most non-natives, are essential for support of the food web.

"California native plants are natural treasures that conserve water and other resources, provide habitat for wildlife, and add color and fragrance to the garden," said Kitty Connolly, executive director of the foundation.

Novick agrees. "Students learn that native plants deliver habitat value that non-natives can't match," she said.

The foundation educates students about water conservation through field trips, classes and by leveraging its partnerships with the Council for Watershed Health and Griffin Education Solutions.


The foundation and council received a grant from the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power for a pilot program in six schools. Students learn the sources of Los Angeles' fresh water and the sources of the electricity that moves the water, as well as how to conduct site analysis of water runoff and design, and how to choose native plants for the site.

"On the tour of the Paseo and the adjoining street, students see its curb cuts and mini swales along the curbs for reducing flooding and retaining water, as well as native plants for filtering that water before it sinks into the aquifer," Novick explained.

"Back in the classroom, students go through a site analysis of their school's problematic runoff areas and how to design catchment areas with native landscaping."

An environmental studies class at Van Nuys High School was the first to complete the program, and current participants include middle and high school classes from Sun Valley Magnet School.

"It is crucial that students feel empowered, because this will help drive the paradigm shift that L.A. so desperately needs in the way it uses water," Novick said. "Ultimately we hope to engage students in projects that expose them to varied career choices."

These can include civil engineering, native plant management and other careers that will have an impact on the state's emerging water policies. The foundation also supplies mini-lessons for teachers to educate students about plant transpiration and leaf adaptations for drought resistance. The foundation also partners with LA's BEST afterschool program to install native plant gardens on campuses throughout the school district.

"The gardens are meant to educate not only the students but their families, the LA's BEST staff, the school community and the surrounding community as well," Novick said.

The first native garden was planted in 2011 at First Street Elementary School in Boyle Heights.


"Each student designed their own native and conventional edible garden, having measured the space, analyzed the sunlight patterns and tested the soil," Novick said.

Next, students collaborated on the final plan.

"Students installed the garden over a series of afternoons," Novick said. "They planted manzanita, Catalina cherry trees, toyon, white sage, buckwheat and California lilac, and seven large bins of edibles so they could learn about nutrition and see how the native plants are homes for pollinators that help the edible garden."

Students also learned about the vast difference in water use between a native and edible garden.

"At First Street ... it made my heart so glad to hear some of the third-graders say that they wanted to be native landscape architects when they grow up," Novick said.

Novick added that she strives to make as many types of programs available as possible to fit different schools' needs and ways of teaching about water. Implementation of the water-saving practices is key.

"The practice is where the rubber really hits the road, so to speak," Novick said.

"We can talk about conservation all we like, but it is in the actual doing of it -- in the actual implementation of a conservation solution -- that students really take ownership of the idea. This sense of ownership through implementation is what fuels behavior change in the long run."

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--By Alicia Doyle, Brand Publishing Writer