April 21, 2014|By Alterra Hetzel
Reimagining The Water CycleThe Conservation Fund’s Alterra Hetzel talks about a new vision for our forests and cities

Do you remember learning about the water cycle when you were young? The water cycle at the Garcia River Forest along California’s North Coast is straight out of a textbook. 

Spanning 24,000 acres along the Garcia River in Mendocino County, this forest is owned and operated by the nonprofit Conservation Fund as a sustainably-managed, working forest. Rivers and streams shelter endangered coho salmon and steelhead trout. These same waterways snake their way through the forest and drain into the Pacific Ocean.

Before The Conservation Fund protected Garcia River Forest, the land and its trees were harvested to meet aggressive financial returns. The entire landscape was threatened by conversion to second homes and vineyards. 

The Conservation Fund has used grants, low interest loans, sale of carbon offsets and support from UPS and others to protect forests like the Garcia. The trees that aren’t cut trap greenhouse gas. This is similar to taking over 16,000 cars off the road for that year. Today, sustainable forestry practices and carbon sales here provide funding for repairs across the 235 miles of logging roads and 37 miles of streams on North Coast forests.

Water cycles don’t stop in the woods. They are active in our cities, too. Both gray (pipes and steel) and green (open spaces and natural places) components need to be considered. Water may not seep into the ground at all because concrete surfaces keep the water from reaching the ground causing it to run quickly—picking up plenty of pollution on the way, and emptying into creeks and streams that are dry in droughts and are flooded in rains.  

In Atlanta, The Conservation Fund is working at the headwaters of Proctor Creek in the downtown neighborhoods of Vine City and English Avenue. Proctor Creek’s tributaries are negatively impacted by pollution, dumping and erosion. These tributaries have shown to have high bacteria levels and extremely poor water quality that eventually flow into the Chattahoochee River and the Gulf of Mexico. In heavy rains, the combined storm and sewer drains overflow. In very heavy rains, untreated sewage flows into buildings and homes. In September 2002, several feet of flooding in Vine City caused some residents to swim through water contaminated with sewage to evacuate. Seventy homes had to be removed.

The Conservation Fund and the communities of Vine City and English Avenue hope to change this situation. On behalf of the City of Atlanta, the Fund is working with public and private leaders, including UPS, to establish Parks with Purpose, an effort to improve water quality, the local economy, community health and quality of life park by park and block by block. In Atlanta’s English Avenue neighborhood, we are piecing together vacant and abandoned lots, to create its first park at Lindsay Street. Because the park includes a tributary to Proctor Creek, it presents an opportunity to demonstrate how land conservation and restoration can improve and maintain a healthy urban water cycle.

Since 2005, The Conservation Fund has protected more than 200 acres in Atlanta. But we can’t do it alone. UPS is helping The Fund raise awareness about the importance of healthy lands and waters from the vast  forests of California to the neighborhoods of Atlanta. Together, we can reimagine places and activities that are good for the environment, the community and the economy: we get safer places to play, more job opportunities and cleaner water to drink. Now that’s some good learning!