Five years ago, Bryant Ranch Elementary School teachers, Donelda Warhurst and Liz Stumpf, were exploring ways to teach their 2nd and 3rd-grade students the value of having a natural river in their city. To gain more insight about this topic, they contacted Park Ranger staff at Featherly Regional Park and the “seed” of a highly successful, ongoing environmental restoration project was planted. This project has empowered the students to remedy a situation jeopardizing the natural habitat of the Santa Ana River, which is located just ½ mile from Bryant Ranch School.
The extremely aggressive species “Arundo donax” or Giant Cane threatens the Santa Ana River’s native riparian habitat. This invasive plant can grow up to 10-inches per day and consumes millions of gallons of drinking water annually from the Santa Ana River groundwater basin. On learning of this serious threat to a local waterway, the students of Bryant Ranch School joined County of Orange, Harbors Beaches and Parks Adopt-A-Program in the development of the “Once Upon A River” project. Beginning in October 1994, 70 students were trained to properly identify and remove “Arundo donax,” replacing it with native river-dwelling species. They worked two days per month throughout the school year.
After five years and 10,080 volunteer hours provided by 280 students, an acre of the invasive “Arundo donax” has been completely removed along the Santa Ana River within Featherly Regional Park. As a result of the “Once Upon A River” project, the area has been restored to native riparian trees and plants. This has resulted in an estimated saving to the County of Orange of $30,000. The efforts of the Bryant Ranch Elementary School students have attracted offsite mitigation by the development community. To date, more than 40 acres of invasive species have been removed by local developers, saving the County of Orange approximately one million dollars in native habitat restoration.
The long-term commitment of the students has also attracted the attention of community members, local businesses, and the media, resulting in increased project support, an expanded volunteer base and a greater awareness of an important environmental issue. They have addressed community needs by actively safeguarding the environmental and by raising awareness of the significance of the Santa Ana River, including issues such as storm drain management and the importance of removing invasive species for the protection and guardianship of a groundwater basin and precious local wetlands.
Overall, Bryant Ranch Elementary School students have established an important tradition of caring for the Santa Ana River, which is passed down to new students each year. The significance of this tradition is that it ensures ongoing protection of the environment and continuous education of younger generations in protecting natural resources. The overwhelming success of Bryant Ranch Elementary School’s “Once Upon A River” project has had an immediate as well as long-lasting impact upon the native habitat of the Santa Ana River and Featherly Regional Park and will help foster further restoration of this important groundwater basin.