Sanctuary Forest, a local land trust, has been working with the Southern Humboldt Unified School District to build a water storage project at Whitethorn School. The hope is that by increasing water storage capacity later this year, the school can reduce its impact on the Mattole. The system will be installed at no cost to the school district -- but in exchange for providing the water storage system, Sanctuary Forest will require the school to enter into a forbearance agreement that prohibits pumping water out of the river during low-flow months.
The project is expected to store an estimated 80,000 gallons of water, and construction may be completed as soon as the end of fall this year.
Since the campus isn't hooked up to a municipal water system, it's essentially off-grid. Water has to be pumped in from the river.
In the winter months, that isn't much of a problem. But during the dry season, that draw can be significant. According to Sanctuary Forest, the school uses an average of 11 gallons of water per student per day, and with 107 students in attendance that can add up to more than a 1,000 gallons per day.
In addition to the inherent environmental benefits of mitigating Whitethorn School's impact on the river, utilizing a public school campus for the project offers an unusual educational opportunity.
"We were talking about culture change, throughout the entire community. Not just a couple of people in one reach changing their diversion, but an entire community. So when you think about that, the challenge becomes ‘how do you reach everybody from all walks of life? People from all different professions, people with different values.' There's different ways to do that, but the Whitethorn School is an awesome opportunity for us," said Tasha McKee, executive director of Sanctuary Forest. "It's true that it's only people who have kids you're reaching, that's usually a cross section of the community that you don't get anywhere else like in the newspaper or on the radio."
"Whitethorn School has a history of being really involved in the river," McKee says. The program is no longer active, but in recent years Whitethorn students have participated in a program that took salmon through their early lifecycle, raising eggs in an aquarium and releasing juveniles into the watershed. "So there's a culture there already in the school of kids being really connected to fish."
What's more, the project could potentially be replicated in other areas.
"Fish and game is looking to our forbearance program as a model for other low-flow streams where there's divergence, regardless of who's pumping the water out," McKee said. "Because we're publicly funded, when we develop a project like this we share it with anybody else who's interested in knowing how we put this together."
This particular location has been more complicated than some of Sanctuary Forest's other water forbearance projects. Because it's on school grounds, it has to be reviewed and approved by the California Department of the State Architect -- which is a time consuming bureaucratic process.
"We really jumped through a lot of hoops in the DSA process," Program Assistant Bill Arthur said. "It took the engineer and myself back and forth with the California educational code for several weeks before we sorted out the applicable code."
Those challenges were exacerbated after former district superintendent Jim Stewart resigned last April. After Catherine Scott was hired to take over the job, the changeover made it necessary to reassess details of the project. "We sort of went back to the drawing board at the request of the district," Arthur said, "and rethought the whole project in terms of the location of the tanks and in terms of what we were trying to do."
According to Southern Humboldt Unified School District Superintendent Catherine Scott, construction of Sanctuary Forest's water forbearance project at Whitethorn School is expected to finish in time for use during the 2013/14 school year.