In California’s Orange County, over 350 miles of storm channels and urban waterways help transport rain and stormwater to the coast, where some of California’s most pristine coastal beaches and ecological preserves reside. Over time, however, the county’s storm channels and waterways were neglected, and considerably high levels of debris and trash accumulated within them. Graffiti also spread throughout the system of channels, creating a sense of urban decay that stimulated undesirable activities, including the growth of gangs.
Given global climate change and the uncertainty of future weather patterns, a powerful and sudden storm could flood the County if the channels remained clogged, negatively impacting and endangering over 3 million people, buildings, and valuable property—not to mention the currently intact and valuable coastal preserves and beaches. Something also had to be done to blunt the blight of graffiti and the threat of gang violence that the system of neglected channels helped propagate.
It was because of this dilemma, that a powerful member of Orange County’s business community got involved. Frank Dela Vera, Disneyland Resort’s Director of Environmental Affairs, has been credited with the conception of the “Adopt a Channel” idea. Working with Orange County Conservation Corps and other partners, Disneyland decided it wanted to pilot a program modeled after the successful “Adopt a Highway” programs that have become ubiquitous throughout the United States. The goal would be to remove debris and graffiti from the county’s channels.
They started with a two-mile stretch of the Anaheim-Barber City Channel flowing from the Disneyland Resort to the Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve, a coastal wetland that provides a home to numerous threatened and endangered species. With an investment of $50,000 from Disneyland, Orange County Conservation Corps (OCCC) would mobilize Corpsmembers to help make the project a success. But they also recognized the value of what additional partners could offer.
Personnel from the Orange County Department of Public Works, the agency that monitors the channels, helped mentor OCCC staff and Corpsmembers on crucial graffiti removal tactics, as well as safety procedures and best practices. In conjunction with the Orange County Sheriff’s Department, Corpsmembers were also trained to enter data into the “Tracking Automated Graffiti Reporting System” (TAGRS) computer program. The TAGRS system is an informational database containing photos of graffiti, listings of monikers, and identities of subjects identified through law enforcement contacts as possibly being involved with graffiti and other similar types of vandalism. Crews were trained and outfitted with a Galaxy Tablet II, connected into the TAGRS database. Corpsmembers would input data and photo journal the graffiti into the database program that will potentially link the criminals to the vandalism.
To date the results of the Adopt a Channel program have been impressive. Over 1,000 pounds of debris that otherwise would have been deposited into the Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve have been removed. Crews have also abated over 15,000 square feet of graffiti from the 2 mile length of the channel. Vandalism in this channel has decreased by 90%.
Corpsmembers have also gained valuable job skills and personal satisfication for their contributions to the service project. One Corpsmember said “I feel a sense of pride knowing I’m keeping the ocean clean.” They’ve also helped make Orange County safer and more beautiful, and potentially deterred youth like themselves from joining gangs.
The pilot program has been so successful that Orange County has implemented the program county-wide. The primary benefit to adopters is demonstration of community engagement; setting an example for other organizations, businesses, and residents within the community to take ownership of their water resources and local coastal ecology. On an individual basis, each Adopter has the opportunity to positively impact their waterways by improving water quality and providing a healthier habitat for wildlife like great blue herons, osprey, pelicans, and (the most wonderfully named) shovelnose guitarfish.
Thanks to the publicity the innovative Adopt a Channel program has received from local TV stations and Disneyland, Orange County Conservation Corps has been strengthened by its own boosted visibility in the community. Since the official launch of the program, several large organizations have contacted the Corps to provide the restoration efforts in their adopted portions of the county’s channels. In addition to the $90,000 the program has generated for the organization’s benefit to date, the Corps estimates that the growth of additional partners will increase revenue by 10% annually, helping to further support the Corps’ efforts to hire, train, and educate more youth in the county. The Adopt a Channel program is a great example of how collaboration, a willingness to experiment, and clear goals can result in simultaneous benefits for communities, people, and the environment.