In March of 2016, Nimi Oyeleye (Wiess ‘18), like many other college students, traveled to sunny California for spring break. However, rather than sunbathing and surfing on the golden coast, Oyeleye spent her time cleaning it up. Picking up trash off the beach was just one service aspect of Oyeleye’s Alternative Spring Break (ASB) trip “A Glass Half-Full: A Look into the Current Water Crisis in California and Strategies to Preserve our World’s Greatest Resource.” The trip, according to Oyeleye, completely changed her perspective on sustainability.
“I had studied [sustainability] before, on a surface level,” Oyeleye said. “I had taken AP Environmental Science in high school, which was interesting, but the trip made it a real issue for me.”
In fact, Oyeleye said every sustainability-related activity she has done since then is a direct result of her going on that trip, including her choice to have an environmental focus within her major and to become a vegetarian.
Because of the resounding impact the trip made on her lifestyle, Oyeleye decided she wanted to share her experience with others. So, a month later in late April, she decided to text a friend who had also gone on the trip, Cindy Nguyen (Wiess ‘18), casually asking if she might be interested in leading the next year’s ASB with her. A few days later, the two were attending an info session on leading ASBs and receiving summer assignments for their required class in the fall, all in preparation of a one week trip in the Spring.
“Some weeks were heavier than others, but there was never a week where we didn’t do anything related to ASB,” Oyeleye said. This time, they were going to do the trip a bit differently. On the past trip, the focus had been mainly on droughts, and they had spent the week in five different cities, which meant an exhausting amount of travel. Oyeleye and Nguyen had instead planned the trip to be mostly in Sacramento, with the group flying into San Francisco. Instead of droughts, the focus would be water rights and environmental justice. Consequently, the final trip title was “Troubled Waters: Exploring Environmental Advocacy & the Human Right to Water”.
After catching an early Saturday morning flight from Houston to San Francisco, the students had time to unpack and walk around the bay area before starting their service the next day at Linda Mar Beach with the Pacifica Beach Coalition.
The group worked for hours the next day collecting everything from water bottles to wrappers to cigarette butts off the white, sandy shore, stopping for a quick picnic in a nearby park halfway through. After a long flight the day before, the work was tiring but rewarding. With the service, the students learned how human activity affects beach wildlife, and they were happy to help make a difference in reducing the negative human impacts.
On Monday, the students drove to Sacramento, where they met Amanda Ford with the Environmental Justice Coalition on Water, an advocacy group within California, and learned about some of the issues related to water that California citizens currently face. Amanda held a half-day workshop for the students on water justice and the human right to water, allowing them to dive deeper into the complexity of the California water crisis.
“These organizations act as a middle ground between communities and policymakers,” Oyeleye said. “They work to ensure that vulnerable communities have access to water and have a collective voice.”
Through the workshop, students not only learned about water rights, but also how an advocacy group promotes environmental justice to both policymakers and the public. Oyeleye thought it was especially important that Amanda brought up some of the less visible problems that occur between local advocacy groups and national advocacy groups: despite having seemingly aligned goals, national groups often do not understand deeper, local issues and can consequently put misplaced importance on some issues and not on others.
To gain a different perspective, the group then travelled to the capitol, where they had scheduled conversations with multiple policymakers regarding water rights and policies. Oyeleye and Nguyen were able to plan these meetings with the aid of John Kingsbury, a helpful contact on the last ASB that the site leaders had kept in touch with for future trips and meetings. They spoke to Republican state senators who were formerly farmers, so the legislators focused mainly on the importance of water in large agriculture processes — an important contributor to California’s economy, history, and culture. According to Oyeleye, there was a stark difference in the conversations held with senators and advocacy groups: the advocacy groups focused on individuals’ water rights and environmental justice, whereas the senators considered these topics non-issues compared to the agricultural and business needs for water. Though the trip was certainly focused more on issues brought up by the advocacy groups, Oyeleye said it was valuable getting “a broad range of views on different important [water] issues,” noting that, regardless of bias and opinion, everyone realized that water was a valuable resource for people living in California.
Each night at the end of a long, packed day, Oyeleye and Nguyen led the students in a brief time of reflection to fully comprehend the day’s lessons. They discussed their thoughts and opinions, and at the end of the week, the students collaborated to make a brief photo blog to record some of those thoughts and memories.
On Tuesday, the group met Kingsbury at the Mountain County’s Water Resource Association early in the morning, where he had offered to take them on a bus tour to the Nimbus Fish Hatchery, Folsom Lake Dam, and a water treatment plant. At the fish hatchery, workers explained to the group how they incorporated the natural fish cycle and spawned fish within the facility. Overfishing is an international problem, so the students learned about the environmental benefits of having the hatchery as well as the importance water plays in their facility. The hatchery also donates some of their fish to local food charities, a small but helpful application of their services in the community. From there the students learned about water use regulations and allowances by county. Their presenter talked about “conjunctive water use”, which is a strategy used in California that involves coordinated use of surface water and groundwater with adaptability to changing demand. After the presentation, the group boarded the bus and drove to Folsom Dam.
At the dam, one of the managers of the site also gave a presentation, this time discussing the methods of holding and letting out water with the dam at certain times. The students were surprised to find out, in the opinion of the manager, the drought was over, and citizens were now conserving too much water that was in turn having to be let out into the ocean. After a final stop at the water treatment plant, the students headed back to the Methodist Church where they were staying and prepared for service activities.
The next day, they arrived at the Cosumnes River Preserve. As if to further dispel the popular belief that California was still facing drought, rain had flooded the river preserve a few days prior, limiting some of the work the students could do by the river. Instead, their guide Alex Cabrera had the students cut tree branches into rounded sticks that can then be potted to grow on their own. They planted the new trees, once rooted, in the preserve as part of a reforestation effort along the river. While there, the students learned about the ecology and conservation of the area surrounding the river. According to Oyeleye, the organization was also using the river as an opportunity to research floodplains and droughts and to better understand how water affects both land and wildlife.
Anna Truong (Will Rice ‘19), one of the students, later described the experience as humbling.
“Through our hands-on experience, we gained a greater appreciation for the physical efforts that go towards the preservation of nature preserves like the Cosumnes River,” Truong said. She said knowing that their planted tree cuttings would someday become integral elements of the preserve was an incredible reward.
After two days of work at the river preserve, the event-packed week was quickly coming to a close. Thursday night, the group went to see a documentary called “Damnation”, a coincidentally fitting film for their water studies, commenting on America’s dams and the problems they cause.
On Friday, the students took a trip to Yosemite. Driving in two cars, the students caravanned through the mountains to the gorgeous national park where they were able to hike for a little while and soak up the natural Californian landscape. There were a few hiccups in actually getting there, but all the students agreed the trip was well worth it.
“While it is easy to tell how humans intervened — the roads, pavements, park facilities — somehow, the park still feels so pure and so alive,” Nguyen said. “In the water, the trees, and the rocks, I am reminded of the beauty of our world and feel lucky for these places that still exist.”
After concluding their trip with the overwhelming beauty of Yosemite, the students boarded a plane for Houston on Saturday morning. Spring break was over, yet in just one week the group had explored lakes and preserves, hatcheries and water treatment plants, the inner workings of water advocacy groups and the legislative processes of California senators. The experience allowed them to dig deeper into the complexities of water rights and environmental justice, and, with a wide range of perspectives and knowledge, they are now empowered to find better solutions in the future.
(Photos by Cindy Nguyen.)