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The Kids Who Saved a Creek

Protecting the environment is a lesson that never ends.

THE MEANDERING, 7-MILE ADOBE CREEK in Petaluma, CA, wasn’t always the beautiful, burbling stream it is today. Years ago, trickling water teemed with bacteria. Hunks of garbage outnumbered fish. State officials declared the creek “dead” and diverted much of the upstream water into a local reservoir system. But Tom Furrer, a wildlife biology teacher and former park ranger at nearby Casa Grande High School, refused to give up.

In 1983, Furrer recruited students to restore the creek. Calling themselves the United Anglers of Casa Grande, the group hauled away rusted refrigerators and bedsprings from the banks. Then they planted trees, hoping that root systems would eventually prevent erosion and provide shady pools for fish to spawn.

“When these kids saw how bad this creek looked, they felt there was nothing they could do,” says Furrer, who notes that the club is a nonprofit entity and therefore entirely volunteer. “It was up to me to get them thinking that yes, they could make a difference.”

Gradually, the creek came back to life. State officials tore down upstream water diversions, enabling clean water to flow again. The new trees grew to reclaim the creek banks. Remarkably, a local population of steelhead trout that had nearly disappeared returned to spawn in strong numbers.

A Hatchery Just in Case. The Anglers didn’t stop there. Determined to protect the fish they helped save, the group set out in 1991 to build a fisheries research facility and fish hatchery on the Casa Grande campus. Students wanted it to be big enough to serve as a “safe site” for up to 50,000 steelhead trout in the event of another problem in the creek. The price tag: $510,000.

Students raised this money largely through donations. The California Department of Fish and Game contributed. So did local ranchers. Others gave non-cash contributions such as lumber, refrigeration units and expertise. Today, the 51-year-old Furrer says the facility, opened in 1993, is a working testament to conservation – the students raise 30,000 fish a year.

“To think that at one point, this creek had almost no fish left – it’s really incredible,” he says. “These kids have come in and saved a whole piece of their community that would have been lost forever.” Furrer still teaches his Anglers to champion habitat protection. Community members turn out in huge numbers for these events. Past Anglers and their family members participate, too.

“Once you have been a part of this group, you keep working at it,” says Pam Hubacker, whose son, Dan, was president of the club in 2000. “Protecting the environment is a lesson that never ends.

Matt Villano writes from Healdsburg, CA. This article originally appeared in NRTA Live & Learn, Summer 2006.

Watch for new stories every Thursday in Live & Learn, NRTA's publication for the AARP educator community.

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