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Every day is Earth Day as SEC celebrates 25th year

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The winter of 1989 was a particularly memorable time for Sonoma resident Richard Dale. The Bay Area had just been rattled by the Loma Prieta earthquake, the full impact of the Exxon Valdez oil spill was only just coming to light and leading environmentalists were starting to whisper concerns over a strange phenomenon they called “global warming.”

It was a fertile time for any young ecologist getting his boots wet in the murky pools of conservation – the earth was hip, it was hot and it was seemingly in a heap of trouble.

It was that December when Dale was approached by then-mayor Larry Murphy, and a gaggle of local earth-aware community members, about putting on a citywide Earth Day event. If Sonoma was going to be serious about lessening its environmental footprint, the town would need to take a big step on April 22 to hit the “green” ground running.

“There were thousands of communities around the world staging Earth Day events that would collectively become the largest environmental event in history, with millions of participants,” recalls Dale. “Sonoma wasn’t going to be left out of this global celebration.”

And it sure wasn’t. Earth Day 1990 covered the Sonoma Plaza, with events spilling over into the Sebastiani Theatre and several businesses all the way down to the Community Center, with green technology demonstrations, activities, music, films, food, dancing and speeches.

“When the event was over,” says Dale, “there was a sense that something important had happened.” Several of the Earth Day organizers, he says, decided to form a nonprofit that would continue the education and bridge-building functions the event had launched, and “help our community take care of this place we all love.”

Now, 25 years later, that nonprofit – the Sonoma Ecology Center – is still “taking care of this place” with more educational programs, guided nature walks, and events to raise awareness about our “big blue marble” than ever before.

In this first of a two-part Q&A with Dale, we asked the SEC executive director about the Ecology Center’s first quarter century of trying to save the planet.

•••

How has the role of the Ecology Center changed over the years?

We started out small, essentially all volunteers. We had a library of materials to connect people to information that could help them take actions to support the environment, and expanded this with curriculum for local teachers. Recycling, and “50 Simple Things You Can Do to Save the Earth,” were very popular. For all the broad strokes and movement on the global and national stages, most local actions were designed to reach people where they were, and didn’t try to move them too fast.

Was focusing the community’s thoughts on water difficult in those pre-drought years?

There was growing interest in the community about water and how streams connected everyone to their place. We started the “Sonoma Valley Watershed Council,” hosting lectures and discussions about water and other topics, which was a lively incubator to several of our future programs. Similarly, food and gardens were emerging as topics of interest, and a volunteer group formed, polled the community about what it wanted, and started what is now Sonoma Garden Park.

Youth education is a primary focus for the Ecology Center – from the watershed education to internships to science camps. Why is it so vital to reach kids at an early age?

The first few years at school are an important time to learn these skills. Seven- to 11-year-olds know instinctively how to be curious and aren’t afraid of the natural world when we bring them outside to explore it; they dive with passion into our lessons. They don’t care that they’re learning science. Even culturally hardened teens, with something useful to do and a chance to engage through an internship in the adult work world, often love to learn about food webs, retail sales, ecological restoration or water efficiency.

Yeah, teens these days are all about video games, Pinterest and water efficiency.

(Reaching young people) is perhaps the most important work that we do. If we don’t know how the natural world works, and our relationship to it, we can’t expect to act, or adapt, in ways that will restore things when they are out of balance, or keep working natural systems healthy.

On that note, the SEC has touted the importance of watersheds since its inception, and it seems the rest of us are finally catching up. What sort of future for the Sonoma Valley watershed do you see ahead?

Water will become more precious. Sonoma County supplies are fully used and, in some cases, over-used and we aren’t likely to build more reservoirs. Groundwater, where nearly two-thirds of our Valley’s water comes from, is shifting toward being regulated, and that will drive us to be more collaborative, or to run out in places. Some homes are already trucking in drinking water.

We might run out of ground water? What can we do?

I think we’ll show again that this community is a leader in finding creative, collaborative solutions to problems, even water. We’ll work together to conserve more, reuse more, slow down storm water, and get more of it into the ground. I also hope we’ll start to see all the land around us as a connected system, one that supports our water supply, regulates flooding, and provides many other benefits.

• • •

Check out Part 2 of this interview in our Tuesday, April 21 edition, when Dale reflects on SEC’s first 25 years and looks ahead to the future of Sonoma Valley conservation.