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04 • 30 • 2020

BWTF & OFG Innovations in Isla Vista, California

Students apply innovation and leadership skills to meet community needs with their clean water programs. 

Isla Vista is a college town perched on a small stretch of coastal bluff just west of the University of California, Santa Barbara campus (UCSB) in Goleta, CA. Surfrider’s Isla Vista Chapter is run entirely by students at UCSB who all love the ocean and are dedicated to protecting and enhancing their local coastline. The leaders of this chapter have made great strides with their clean water programs in recent years and have implemented innovative approaches to meet the needs of their local community. 

The Isla Vista Blue Water Task Force 

The Isla Vista Chapter ran a small Blue Water Task Force (BWTF) program and tested three surf breaks near campus for approximately 10 years. It was a great educational experience for the students and it provided useful water quality information to surfers at the university. However, the program lapsed for a couple of years from 2015 - 2017 after the students leading it graduated. 

New chapter leadership relaunched the program during the fall of 2017. The new BWTF coordinator was particularly motivated to get the on-campus water testing program back up and running as he had previously participated in the South Bay Chapter’s Teach & Test BWTF program as a student at Redondo Union High School. 

Photo courtesy of Cali Brennan. 

Only a few months later, the disastrous Thomas Fire broke out. By January 2018, more than 280,000 acres in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties were burned. Heavy rains in January also caused flooding and mudslides to occur on the fire-ravaged hillsides. This brought not only more damage to the impacted area, but also a whole new suite of concerns as debris and contaminants washed down to the ocean. In addition, mud and sediment were deposited at Goleta and Carpinteria beaches to allow emergency responders to provide assistance to those affected by the mudslides. 

Students and surfers who frequented the beach at Campus Point just down-drift from the mud disposal site at Goleta Beach were concerned about the resulting water quality impacts at the beach. Test results obtained by the Isla Vista BWTF from January to February confirmed this concern as nearly all weekly water samples collected at Campus Point measured high bacteria levels for at least a month. 

In order to meet the local surf and beach community’s need for more information on the safety of their local breaks, the Isla Vista Chapter’s BWTF sought out ways they could expand their monitoring program to add sample sites and test more frequently. The chapter successfully applied for a grant through the UCSB Coastal Fund that allowed them to purchase additional testing supplies. The BWTF coordinator also reached out to other local water quality monitoring organizations, including Santa Barbara Channelkeeper and the Santa Barbara County Department of Public Health, to discuss ways that they could collaborate to cover more beaches with their programs. The Health Department took responsibility for testing Goleta Beach. It was also decided that Santa Barbara Channelkeeper would test one of the Isla Vista Chapter BWTF sampling sites, Campus Point, 3-4 times per week. This allowed the chapter to shift its efforts to start monitoring another popular surf break at Devereux just a little further up the coast. The chapter shared water quality information generated by all three organizations on their Facebook page so students across campus were aware of current conditions. Read more about these efforts here

In the two years since the Thomas Fire, the Isla Vista Chapter has built up a solid crew of Blue Water Task Force volunteers and new students have taken over leadership of the program. Enough funding has also been secured to maintain weekly testing of five beaches. All of the Isla Vista Chapter’s sampling sites and their results can be viewed on the BWTF website. The chapter even designed a water quality sign featuring ‘Rod the Cephalopod’ that was posted at the top of the public access to Sands Beach to inform people of current conditions. Unfortunately, this attractive sign was stolen, but the chapter is reengineering a new sign to be tamper- proof, and hope that it will help them in their efforts to make people aware of local water quality conditions. 

The Isla Vista Compost Collective 

The Isla Vista Chapter’s Ocean Friendly Gardens committee has also taken innovative approaches to meet a perceived need in their community. In the fall of 2017, the OFG committee founded the Isla Vista Compost Collective to enable more residents in Isla Vista to compost. The program was intended to educate both the participating students and households on proper composting practices. In addition, the committee set out to meet the lofty goal of creating a model composting program that other communities could replicate. 

After a lot of planning and raising a little funding, the Compost Collective fully launched during the fall semester of 2018. The program started small by providing 20 houses with five-gallon buckets and composting guidelines. Students, also known as ‘Dirtriders,’ rode their bikes with cargo trailers in tow to collect food waste and provide clean buckets to each house on their assigned routes on a weekly basis. All collected food waste was sorted, weighed and brought to community compost piles and a bin serviced by the waste management company, MarBorg. The students communicated regularly with the participating households, letting them know if any items were not composted properly and what the impact of their contribution was each week. 

Photo courtesy of Jessica Bixby.

By creating beneficial compost for use in community gardens, this program is helping to nurture healthy, biologically active soil that can sponge up and absorb rain and urban runoff. There are also climate change benefits from composting. When organic waste decomposes in landfills, it releases methane, which is a strong, climate- changing gas. By diverting food waste from landfills, the Compost Collective is also helping to decrease local impacts of climate change by reducing methane emissions. 

Over the past two years, the Compost Collective has expanded to service 96 households. The program has diverted over 8.9 tons of food waste from the local landfill and has prevented the release of approximately 6.5 metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent into the atmosphere through the reduction of methane emissions. That's equivalent to over 7,100 pounds of coal burned! Read more about the climate impacts of this program below.

Even more exciting, Isla Vista’s Community Services District just voted to absorb the program and will ensure its continued operations. While students will still participate in the day-to-day operations of the composting program, it is reassuring to have this local government office take responsibility for the program as it grows to meet the demand of over 100 additional households that are currently on the waitlist. 

The IV Compost Collective students celebrate their success the Isla Vista Community District Members. Photo courtesy of Jacob Bider. 

With the Compost Collective achieving such success, the Isla Vista Ocean Friendly Gardens committee intends to go back to the drawing board next fall. They’ll consider new projects that they can tackle to educate their campus and local community on the benefits of sustainable gardening practices.

The Surfrider Foundation Isla Vista Chapter has received support from Sanuk, the UCSB Coastal Fund, UCSB First, and the Isla Vista Community Relations Committee. The chapter leaders are very appreciative of how this has helped them to develop and grow their clean water programs to meet community needs. These organizations are truly contributing to the next generation of coastal defenders.