My guest today is Deb Kramer, founder and executive director of Keep Coyote Creek Beautiful.
I’ve come to know Deb and her organization over the past couple of years, and I can’t believe it has taken me this long to have her on the podcast! Keep Coyote Creek Beautiful, in my opinion, is a model for how to start and grow a conservation organization.
Today you’ll hear about Coyote Creek, which is actually a river that traverses open space, agriculture, and urban areas. In the San Jose, California area, it is often overshadowed by other more prominent rivers, and as a result, has been under appreciated and under used. And like so many waterways, it faces challenges from pollution, invasive species, and impacts from damming and other water management practices. We discuss some of the specific challenges facing Coyote Creek, and I’m sure you have a waterway near where you live with similar challenges.
Naturally, Deb and Keep Coyote Creek Beautiful are changing this, advocating for the creek and making tangible improvements. As I said, I think KCCB can serve as a model for how to approach urban conservation efforts. As you’ll hear, there is thoughtfulness and purpose behind every decision they’ve made and activity they facilitate – from the organization’s name, to their three pronged approach to engaging the public, to partnership development, and embracing fun and enthusiasm throughout. They’ve removed 272 tons of trash and have engaged over 9,000 volunteers, many of whom are regulars.
There are so many useful insights and transferable lessons today that I hope you find useful, whether you are a volunteer, conservation leader, or someone who simply enjoys their local rivers and creeks.
I hope you enjoy this discussion as much as I did!
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Links To Topics Discussed
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Cadillac Desert by Marc Reisner
Garbology by Edward Humes
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The following music was used for this media project:
Music: Spellbound by Brian Holtz Music
Free download: https://filmmusic.io/song/9616-spellbound
License (CC BY 4.0): https://filmmusic.io/standard-license
Artist website: https://brianholtzmusic.com
Closing – Beauty Flow by Kevin MacLoed
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Transcripts are automatically created, and are about 95% accurate. Apologies for any errors.
[00:00:00] Michael Hawk: Deb, thank you so much for joining me today.
[00:00:02] Deb Kramer: I’m happy to be here, Michael. Thank you.
[00:00:04] Michael Hawk: So I think, I can’t even remember exactly when we met, maybe it was even post pandemic when I was participating in a bio blitz that you were co-facilitating with Mira and Bio Blitz Club. Do you remember?
[00:00:16] Deb Kramer: Yeah, I think that’s it. I feel like we’ve known each other for about two years, which is about how long the pandemic’s been going on.
[00:00:23] Michael Hawk: Yeah. And I’ve been really impressed with your organization and your organizational skills uh, to keep Coyote Creek beautiful. We’re gonna talk a lot about that today and what you do with that organization, how it works. And I wanna pick your brain and hear about how you’ve built it the way you have.
[00:00:40] So I hope you’re ready for.
[00:00:41] Deb Kramer: Thanks. I am, I’m really looking forward to sharing what we’ve done and how people can get involved.
[00:00:47] Michael Hawk: But I wanna hear about you first before we jump into that. So, We’re talking about nature on Nature’s archive. How did you get interested in nature in the first place?
[00:00:55] Deb Kramer: Oh, it’s really a great question. So I grew up in the seventies and that was when the Earth Day movement started and recycling really got going. And being in the Bay Area, we had fires and floods and all sorts of things. And I became really resource aware. And one of the things that my dad did is he had this program that he ran through the jcs, which is like rotary called Litter out of Sight.
[00:01:26] And we jumped in the back of pickup truck when you could ride in pick up truck without seatbelts. And we went around and picked up trash in our community and I got introduced to some of the creeks. I didn’t know were there. And had fun doing it. So just, I guess becoming really resource aware was great.
[00:01:44] And we had a creek in my backyard at the two houses I lived in and we play there all the time. I loved hiking and camping and big basin nearby and Yosemite each year were just really the highlights of growing up
[00:01:59] Michael Hawk: Those are both such majestic places that it’s so easy for us to take for granted here in California.
[00:02:05] Deb Kramer: for sure. And I mentioned them to a lot of people and they have no idea about these giant redwood that are right here on the top of a hill. And then the magnificent Sierra Nevada is an amazing place to be in, especially Yosemite, where the valleys were carved by the glacier.
[00:02:22] Michael Hawk: Do you recall when you were playing in the creeks by your house or even going to Big Basin, for example? Any discoveries that you made in particular? Any specific events?
[00:02:33] Deb Kramer: Well, the first discovery was poison oak
[00:02:35] Michael Hawk: no.
[00:02:36] Deb Kramer: Yeah. So I have never gotten poison oak, thank goodness. And it’s either, I’m really meticulous about keeping my clothing away from my skin or and washing up. But everybody else in my family would get it when we go play in the creek. That was like my first discovery really about creeks is that there are things down there that can hurt you.
[00:02:58] I also found it really fun because we go to the liquor store and get the styrofoam and float the creek. , And that was always a fun memory of us. And my neighbors enjoying the waterway. And then the last one probably is just having a rope swing that we would sway back and forth off of a tree and then jump and land into the creek.
[00:03:19] It wasn’t a really deep creek, but it was enough that you got to splash in it, and it was fun.
[00:03:24] Michael Hawk: That sounds so great. I’m thinking about what I missed in my childhood because where I grew up, we had creeks of course, but they were. Not really accessible and they weren’t somewhere that you could just go play. I think we would’ve had to really get out of town to do that. So that’s a great introduction that you had.
[00:03:41] So how, then connect the dot then for me as to then how this childhood, exposure to nature turned into a profession for you that, did you go to school to, with this in mind, running a nonprofit or getting involved in environmental science?
[00:03:57] Deb Kramer: Well, when I was graduating from high school, everybody in my. Family had been in business. So I started thinking that was the path, either economics or marketing, and realized that was not my strength. My strength was in science and I love the outdoors and uc. Berkeley happened to have an environmental science program, so it met both of my criteria and I just really loved my program.
[00:04:25] It was small at the time, but I really enjoyed it. And then I’ve worked in a lot of different fields within the environment from recycling and waste management to water conservation. I’ve also worked in the energy conservation field, but then I also had a little diversion into working at Oracle Software Company as an education.
[00:04:48] Trainer. And then also I worked at nasa, which was really fun. I wanted to be an astronaut when I was a little kid I feel really lucky in that I’ve been able to use the skills that I’ve acquired through working in all those different fields to what I’m doing now, which is connecting people with the Ka Creek watershed.
[00:05:07] Michael Hawk: So why don’t you tell me, about Coyote Creek and this watershed that you’ve grown so fond of
[00:05:14] Deb Kramer: yeah, so actually I. Was introduced to Coyote Creek through a job opportunity that a friend forwarded to me, and then I got hired as a consultant. And then after a period of time, I decided there was more than just cleaning up the creek that I could do, and that’s where I ended up forming Keep Creek Beautiful because the organization could do more and.
[00:05:40] I envisioned a way to connect people by taking different action, like being a advocate for it. I also envision maybe having people use the amazing bike trails that we have. There’s , 15 or 16 miles of trail just from Tully Ballfield South to Anderson Dam, which is a great resource and you go through a number of different ecosystems.
[00:06:03] I also connected with a kayaking instructor, so we took people out towards the mouth of Coyote Creek, so it just felt like there was so much more that we could do than just picking up trash. And so that’s how Keep Cote Creek beautiful got started and how I got more involved with the.
[00:06:22] Michael Hawk: So this job opportunity that you got, it was specific to cleanup me a bit more about that.
[00:06:27] Deb Kramer: Yeah, it was like 90% cleaning up trash and just hosting Creek cleanups. And I was very successful at it. The person who was leading it before had maybe 20 people show up. My first creek cleanup, I had 70 people show up and by the end of the year we had 200. So we were able to pull out a lot of trash , which was great.
[00:06:49] And because that year there was a significant drought that was 2017 huge drought, we were able to get legacy trash, which is just trash that’s been around. Some of it we could actually date to like 1972 or something. A track tape players and the like. So that was really fun of just being able to pull that much old trash out and people.
[00:07:13] Really good about you turn around and you see what your impact was. But also as I started taking people out to go kayaking or to go bike riding, they started to see the creek in a different light. And I think by getting out and enjoying it, we really are able to bring people back and see it as a different resource than just a place where people dump trash.
[00:07:38] Michael Hawk: So what skillset was required for that initial job that connected you to the.
[00:07:43] Deb Kramer: Wow. That’s a really good question.
[00:07:45] So with regards to the skills that I needed and end up using, one is just being really organized. So when you’re creating events, you have to know how, have a schedule and be able to advertise. So that was another thing that I knew was Volunteer Match is a really great tool for getting people out. Most of our volunteers find out about it either through their schools or through Volunteer Match or they’re a regular on our newsletter.
[00:08:14] And then I also was able to leverage my Oracle skills and using different software so that we could capture information about people and utilize that also. Being, I think, really friendly, helps . So I would go to events and meet people and invite them to come to our activities and they would bring some friends.
[00:08:36] And I think that helps too. Just being a friendly person and treating people in a respectful way and not chastising them with regards to trash I think is also good. We really are welcoming of all people who come out to our cleanups, whether they’re high school kids or 70 year old grandparents or their homeless people.
[00:08:59] We invite everybody to join us.
[00:09:01] Michael Hawk: I really do want to talk about the creek for a minute because we haven’t really set that context. So tell me what is Coyote Creek? Where is it? Why is it important? Just some of those some of those parameters around Coyote Creek.
[00:09:13] Deb Kramer: Thanks for asking. Coyote Creek is an amazing. Undervalued resource. Coyote Creek is a 64 mile long. River actually. And it starts up at the Henry Coe State Park and flows in a backwards J through Morgan Hill and Coyote Valley, out through downtown San Jose and into San Francisco Bay by Milpitas. So it encompasses this huge area of South San Francisco Bay, and people just really don’t notice it or know much about it because the Guadalupe River is one that’s right at downtown San Jose.
[00:09:51] So people are really familiar with it. Los Gatos Creek flows through some well known towns and has a beautiful bike trail that people like to use, but people don’t really know much about Coyote Creek because it backs up against people’s houses. There was flooding, there was, there’s a lot of homeless.
[00:10:10] And so those are the things that people know about it. And what we’re trying to do is change what they know about it, to learn about the watershed as a whole and how. Two mountain ranges, Santa Cruz Mountain Range, and the Diablo Mountain range, and this big valley that we’ve been trying to protect so that the wildlife have a safe haven and can also diversify their genetics.
[00:10:33] So an example is there was a study done on the mountain Lions by pathways for wildlife, and their genetic pool is getting smaller. And as a result of not being able to move between these mountain ranges, they may actually become extinct if they can’t increase their genetic material. So having safe passages for them is what?
[00:10:55] A number of organizations are working towards the waterway itself varies in size from hundreds of feet across in the valley to little culverts in near downtown San Jose that are only 10 feet wide. And you can drop a log across it and there you go to the other side. It also is part of the Valley of Heart’s delight, which is the former name of Santa Clara Valley and where tons of fruit was grown.
[00:11:23] Literally tons of fruit every year from plums and apricots, which we still enjoy, and cherries. And it was because it was a valley that had flooding and the soil would then get replenished with new nutrients. It also is an area with. Rare species of plants that people can participate in exploring at certain times of the year, including like the Mount Hamilton Thistle, which is located in some little narrow spots along protected parks.
[00:11:55] So it’s an incredibly diverse creek from a valley environment to an urban area with lots of trees to the salt water area down by the shore. People probably don’t know this, but there’s also the AKA Creek Field Station, one of about 16 in the state of California and the San Francisco Bay, Ber Observatory has been collecting data there for over 30 years about birds and temperature and moisture environment.
[00:12:25] So this creek has got everything. It’s really an amazing resource and that’s what our. Part of our vision is for people to get to know it and to appreciate it.
[00:12:36] Michael Hawk: Is it fair to say that you. Observed that compared to some of the other waterways in the Bay Area. This one was a little underrepresented and that gave you extra motivation to go and advocate for it.
[00:12:47] Deb Kramer: Definitely. And again it’s like people know the Guadalupe River. They go to the Rotary Play Garden. They are familiar with the trail, the Guadalupe River Park Trail, but people don’t, a lot of people don’t know that there’s Cardi Creek Trail or people, literally, there was a study done with the city of San Jose and San Jose State and people lived right behind the creek and they didn’t even know what the name of it was.
[00:13:11] So bringing that awareness to people of just the name of the creek and how we can help protect it, I think is one of the things that raises people’s awareness to nature as a whole, as.
[00:13:22] Michael Hawk: I think that’s such a good point because I’m thinking back to that little anecdote I told you about how I grew up in. A smaller city in San Jose. It’s Omaha, Nebraska. Currently I think the metro area there is about a million people. And the creeks that went through town and the urban areas just were not somewhere you wanted to go.
[00:13:39] And I’m thinking about here, it’s an, this is an urban river, and I don’t know, 4 million people in Santa Clara County, something like that, that would have access to this. And if it isn’t advocated for, if it isn’t kept clean, if it isn’t made accessible, think of all of those people just missing out on a proper connection to nature.
[00:13:58] Where whereas I have this bias about, the urban creeks growing up. Ooh, I don’t want to go there. They’re messy, they’re dirty, they’re, whatever. So yeah, that makes, it makes so much sense that this is an opportunity that we have to connect a lot of people to.
[00:14:11] Deb Kramer: Definitely, and I do think that a lot of people have that ick factor that you had with in growing up because in the urban area of Coyote Creek, the water is pretty dirty for a variety of reasons. And I have friends who tell me they used to play in the creek, and I look at it now and there’s no way I would play in this creek.
[00:14:33] It’s so dirty. If you don’t look at the water, but you look at the trees and the variety of insects and birds around as well as the shrubs, then you start to appreciate the value of what this creek brings to an environment. And if we didn’t have this park-like environment, it would just be concrete.
[00:14:54] And we don’t, I don’t want that for the next generation and I don’t want that for my generation. I think people need to be available to enjoy these spaces, not have to go to them, they just should be right there. Like a park should be right there for you to enjoy and this creek should be right there for everybody to enjoy.
[00:15:14] Michael Hawk: I like what you’re saying too, because even if you can’t go , literally play in the creek and maybe there’s reasons why you don’t wanna do that, even if the water is clean, it’s still, you’re developing this connection and awareness and interest in preserving that habitat that can then be amplified over time.
[00:15:32] I’m sure. And speaking of the habitat and the ecology, Some of the area waterways support, Chinook salmon, steelhead trout. Does Coyote Creek support those fish that I know are of special concern?
[00:15:46] Deb Kramer: Yeah, they used to in great numbers, but because of the poor water quality. Which is one reason the fish have not been coming back. I heard that couple years ago in the lower Pentencia Creek, which is one of the tributaries of Coyote Creek, there were like seven salmon, chinook salmon that came in.
[00:16:05] They seemed to enjoy going to the Guadalupe and Los Gatos creeks. 50 to a hundred to Chinook Salmon a year, come up to spawn. And it’s because the water is much more clean coming out of the urban areas there. The trout, the steelhead trout actually were in the biggest numbers of fish were coming through Coyote Creek historically, but in the recent years, probably in the last 15 years, the fish barriers have been the problem.
[00:16:32] So there’s one that’s been rectified, which is the Singleton Crossing, I’d say that’s. 14 miles from the mouth of the bay. And these are fish that need cold water in order to spawn. So they really like to go way upstream. And then there’s another fish barrier, which is just south of there and it’s a road crossing.
[00:16:55] And then there’s another fish barrier, which are these giant ponds that heat up called Ogier ponds, and they’re large mouth bass that people fish for and they eat the fry. So essentially there’s no place for these little trout that have been stuck in the upper part of the watershed to go out and spawn again.
[00:17:14] Some researchers think that the natural state of the steelhead trout is gone, meaning that the fish have been extirpated from the waterway and any that will come up in the future if. There were pulses of cold water that they could find would be fish that were from hatchery fish or that came from other creeks and just randomly found Coyote Creek.
[00:17:40] Michael Hawk: , that sounds like maybe slightly more dire of a situation or Less optimistic is maybe a better word than the chinook salmon. I think that we still keep an eye out for them even though they haven’t been seen in recent years. Is that accurate?
[00:17:55] Deb Kramer: Yes, definitely. And it’s hard to restore a creek where there are so many. Invasive plants. There’s also like these mud snails and clams and other things in the water that are preventing the fish from having a healthy environment in which they can swim. Because if you’ve got this Arrundo donax, which is a reed, it’s called the giant reed, and a spreads even faster than bamboo it chokes the river.
[00:18:23] And so fish can’t get through there. So there’s that along with those fish barriers that I spoke about that really make it hard for the steelhead to get way upstream to the cold water to spawn.
[00:18:34] Michael Hawk: Yeah, it’s such a daunting challenge to think about.
[00:18:39] So you brought up a really great point with some of the invasive species as well. It’s not just about trash and debris and urban setting and runoff and things like that. What other impacts are you seeing from an invasive species standpoint?
[00:18:52] Deb Kramer: So there also are these red aired slider turtles, and they gobble up all the food that our western pond turtles would normally wanna eat. And when I first started working on the creek seven years ago, I would see the occasional western pond turtle in the creek. And due to the habitat changes, whether it’s the quality of the water or just the lack of food, the, those turtles I haven’t seen in the creek.
[00:19:21] In years. And so that’s again, just thinking about how invasive species like these clams can choke and the Arrundo donax can choke off where any of the natural wildlife would wanna spend time. So I. Getting to where our group works on trying to change that around is looking at our vision, which is to have a vibrant Coyote Creek with clean waters and, abundant wildlife and natural beauty that everyone can enjoy.
[00:19:50] And we can’t do it in a vacuum. So we do that by bringing community members together and agencies to become the advocates and caretakers of the creek. So an example would be just recently we worked with the San Francisco Bay Bird Observatory, which we’ve been doing for the last four years, but we’ve been removing invasive species and putting in native plants out by the bay.
[00:20:17] And so that’s really exciting for people because it’s less about. The trash and more about making a positive change through these new plantings. And we even had a mother and her daughter come for six or seven times in a row this spring because they wanted to see how their plants were doing that they planted.
[00:20:37] And I think that’s really fun that people have some ownership over an area of the creek and what their act that they wanna see what their actions have done. And I think that’s one of the most motivating things for people is if they look back at something that they’ve done in their life and can say, Oh, I made a positive difference.
[00:20:58] It really is rewarding. And so those are the things that we try to help get people connected with. And again, we don’t do it in a vacuum where it’s just us doing it all. I’m working on a partnership with our City Forest and we wanna help plant trees in the neighborhoods within the Coyote Creek watershed, which by the way, is like one and a half Lake Tahoes.
[00:21:19] It’s just huge watershed. And they’re, they said, Whoa. We certainly have lots of opportunities to plant trees, and trees are also part of the ecosystem and provide lots of great habitat. So I feel like the partnerships that we’re developing really make a difference in terms of connecting people with the creek in a positive.
[00:21:41] Michael Hawk: So maybe a practical question, how do you determine who to work with over this vast amount of land?
[00:21:49] Like who is responsible for different portions of the watershed that you would want to partner with?
[00:21:55] Deb Kramer: So that’s the. $50,000 question, maybe 75 for inflation. On this 64 mile long Creek. There are so many different agencies that have a piece of either ownership or management. So a really good example is up at the headwaters in Henry Coe State Park. It’s all managed by the state park system. And then as soon as you get to Anderson Dam, Which is the largest single body of water in the creek system.
[00:22:26] Then you have water that is managed by Valley Water, which is an a wholesale water agency. And you have recreation. Yes, it’s a government agency, and then you have the county of Santa Clara, and they manage the resource from a recreational perspective. So right there, I have to figure out what activity am I doing and who do I have to get a permit from?
[00:22:55] And then within the Valley, it’s a similar situation where the Valley Water Agency owns most of the water. Area, but it’s managed as a recreational parkway by the county of Santa Clara. And then as we go into the urban area is this huge mishmash . So there’s segments that are pieces of private land that back right up to the creek.
[00:23:20] You’ve got the cities, parks and recreation department that have other parts of the creek that, for example, at the Los Lagos Golf Course, where they own the land on both sides of the creek. And then you get to schools like near San Jose High School where they own a little chunk that backs right up through the creek on the west side or the east side.
[00:23:41] And the West Bank is owned by private property owners. That’s a mishmash of all these entities. And the way that I go about learning who I have to get permission from are a couple of resources. So the city of San Jose and the Santa Clara Valley Water District both have GIS databases, and within those I can see who owns the land and what the swath is of land that they have influence over.
[00:24:11] And then based on that, I can then apply for a permit to either do a creek cleanup in an area that’s not within the city of San Jose, or I actually have a permit to work within a segment of the city of San Jose. So that’s taken care of right there. So it’s very complicated as land and water rights have been throughout the history of those types of elements within our country.
[00:24:36] Michael Hawk: So I suspect that for most people, anyone who is inspired by the work you do and looking to start something of their own, there’s probably city or county resources or water district resources similar to what you found.
[00:24:49] Deb Kramer: Most likely there are and I would definitely start with a city. And their storm water, if they wanted to work on a river, is to start with their storm water department, which is usually an environmental services, and they will then start to be able to let you know. Another thing is it Valley Water operates a adopt a Creek program.
[00:25:08] And so it’s very easy to work with them and say, I’m interested in adopting this piece of creek. Who is it managed by? And then can I get a permit to do the cleanups and can you help me with collecting the trash when it’s time to collect trash?
[00:25:22] Michael Hawk: What a great idea. That seems so obvious in retrospect, , since you’ve said that, but so many government agencies are strapped for time and cash and they’ve created these outreach opportunities for people and that yeah, that just seems like a great way to start Google it. Find your local adopt a whatever program.
[00:25:40] Can you tell me then, what is the mission of KCCB and how do you enact it?
[00:25:44] Deb Kramer: So our vision is really to have a vibrant Coyote Creek with clean waters, abundant wildlife, and really the natural beauty that everyone can enjoy. And the way that we go about doing that is that we mobilize the community resources and get them to participate, and we engage the community members to become the creeks advocates and caretakers.
[00:26:06] So what that means is really, Out to neighbor association meetings hosting different kinds of events and posting them on volunteer match or other tools connecting with K12 schools through our education or partnering with certain high schools. We have certain high schools that come out regularly for community service, and it’s great to see these kids coming back time and time again.
[00:26:33] Another example is where the city of San Jose has been one of our biggest fans as well as partners, and they help us with identifying locations to. Host our cleanups. And so it’s a nice partnership cuz they’ll go through and get the bigger trash and then we follow up with getting the smaller trash.
[00:26:53] And it’s been a really nice way to meet others, to cross pollinate, if you will. And I just really feel like it, again, the name says it all, of just, we’re working towards keeping our creek beautiful.
[00:27:06] The name came about because I was working with San Jose State Public Relations class, and one of the things about the class was to come up with the name for the organization and describe how I would be able to advertise and market and get people to participate.
[00:27:27] And this was one of the names that really stood out for me was Keep Coyote Creek Beautiful. And I know it’s a mouthful and we shorten our name to KCCB, which is a very easy thing to remember. But I also felt. It just really met what the vision was for. What I wanted was for all of us to work together to keep the creek beautiful.
[00:27:51] It’s not just about me working on it. It’s about all of us working together, and by using the word keep, it seemed that really fit nicely.
[00:28:00] Michael Hawk: Yeah, I really like the name. It is a lot to type, but it is so directed to the point. People know what they’re doing, they know what you’re doing. I think it makes it, it adds a lot of clarity
[00:28:10] you were telling me about these three different aspects in which you enact the vision and the mission, the advocacy and cleanup, education and recreation. When you started this organization, did you have all three pillars
[00:28:23] Deb Kramer: so when I first started, Keep Coyote Creek beautiful. I kept the cleanup component and advocacy going and. Had been working with San Jose State students and faculty. So within that realm I was able to develop projects for them that directly related to the creek and have expanded the folks that I work with.
[00:28:45] So there’s even a faculty member in recreation that focuses on ecotourism and we use the creek as an example of how you can. Leverage what’s right within your backyard. You don’t have to go to the Galapagos to have ecotourism, which I think is really fun. And so that’s how the education area expanded.
[00:29:05] And then I met Merav VOnshak, who I know has been on your show. And she and I just clicked with regards to hosting Bio Blitz where we go out for a couple of hours on once a month and we have naturalists who take people around and show them , how, as well as what to look for in nature. And I have learned so much from that activity.
[00:29:28] It’s really amazing. And then finally, with regards to the recreation. I just, I like getting outdoors and hiking and having different ways of exploring things, so I thought people probably like to do that too, . So we do get different people who come to different events, but by having these, this kind of three-pronged aspect of our organization around action, education, and recreation, hopefully as people participate in one, they’ll come to another and I’ve seen that happen with a few people where they’re really excited about participating in all different three areas, which shows the intersectionality of what I’ve developed in how we implement our.
[00:30:12] Michael Hawk: And I feel bad that I’ve yet to participate in one of the cleanups. It’s on my list. I definitely want to do that. And what does a cleanup look like? How do you start, what training do you give people? Just paint a picture for.
[00:30:25] Deb Kramer: Yeah, sure. The cleanups are pretty fun. We work with the city of San Jose to identify a location that would be good for us to follow up what they’ve done with the big cleanup. And then we do a smaller cleanup, but don’t think small, like a few bags of trash think. Two to five tons of trash that 30 to 50 people pull out at a time.
[00:30:48] And we work with the city’s beautify SJ program to collect the trash for us. And we do separate metals and some of the more toxic materials like batteries from the rest of the general trash. And then we start six weeks in advance recruiting people. We use Event Bright for people to sign up on and we use social media to get the word out.
[00:31:12] Volunteer match has been a great tool for us to reach out to a wider audience. And we have people who are on Meetup who say, Oh, can I post your event on Meetup for my group? So it’s evolved on its own with regards to getting people to be aware of it. And then on the day of the cleanup, we have team leaders in our action team who are responsible for people to be safe.
[00:31:37] And that’s pretty much what their main function is. And we have a safety talk . We have litter sticks and vests and gloves that are provided by the city of San Jose’s anti-litter program to keep people safe. We also will make sure that an area people are going to, it’s not too wet, so they might fall or into the creek that it’s not too unstable.
[00:32:01] So those are things that we look for on a safety perspective. And making sure that people are paired up. So that’s another safety factor is if somebody falls or gets hurt, we wanna make sure that somebody else is there to help them out. And our team leaders take a 10 to 25 people, depending on where we’re going.
[00:32:19] If you’re going to big grassy area or just along the trail, you can have more people. If we’re going to be focusing on getting very large trash from a, an area in the creek, we tend to have a smaller group who’s then gonna work together. Maybe it’ll be getting a couch or a mattress out of the water using a a hook.
[00:32:38] And so you need four people to pull on that to get it up the bank. So yeah it’s quite involved.
[00:32:45] Michael Hawk: So you started to hit on a question I was about to ask is do the volunteers actually go in the water to extract things?
[00:32:53] Deb Kramer: Technically, no, they don’t go in the water. You have to have a separate permit in order to do that. Accidentally sometimes people do fall in as they’re slipping on the bank, but yeah, no, we don’t. Other organizations do have permits where they can go in the water. I just don’t feel comfortable doing that with our volunteers on the creek.
[00:33:15] And one of the things that I wanna bring up is that there are a lot of homeless people, and along with the homeless people who live along the creek comes. Trash that they generate. And so we, that’s another safety factor is, for example, human waste. Or sometimes we’ve found weapons and we do need to address those immediately.
[00:33:36] And again, our team leaders, their first priority is to keep people safe. And if it means we have to rope off an area that people don’t go to, then that’s what we’ll do.
[00:33:46] Michael Hawk: And it goes to show there’s a layer of experience in planning necessary to pull off these events.
[00:33:52] How many of these events do you, the clean up events in particular, do you hold each.
[00:33:57] Deb Kramer: So we host roughly two cleanups per month, and then during. April, which is Earth Month, not Earth Day anymore, April 22nd. We usually have one every weekend. And then during September, which is also now Coastal cleanup month, not coastal Cleanup day, which used to be the third Saturday. So we host three or four, depending on when Labor Day.
[00:34:25] We usually don’t host on Labor Day, weekend. But we will host the rest of the Saturdays. And again, it’s just to give people an opportunity to, if they can’t make it on the third Saturday for Coastal Cleanup Day, they still can come out and feel like they’re contributing to a cleanup event to help our water.
[00:34:42] Michael Hawk: Do you have any statistics as. How many tons of trash you’ve been able to clean up over the years?
[00:34:47] Deb Kramer: Yes, I have so many statistics, but the skinny is as of. Today we’ve had 161 cleanups with over 9,000 volunteers contributing over 28,000 hours of their time. And we’ve pulled over half a million pounds of trash, which is the equivalent of 272 tons. And just as a visual a Mini Cooper is about a two ton car. It’s what, 130 mini Coopers worth of trash. So that’s a lot. And that’s just one of the things that we do. Right? I mentioned the bio blitzes, which I didn’t even celebrate our 50th bio blitz with Merav. I need to go back and say, Hey, we hit that. So we’ve had 52 bio blitzes with her and we’ve gone to 16 unique locations.
[00:35:42] And I think that helps people to get to know different parts of the creek by going to these different unique locations. And we also go back to them in different times of the year. And so they’ll see different things at different times of the.
[00:35:57] Michael Hawk: Yeah. And so many different species documented along the creek as well, I think is so helpful for people to understand the importance to the food web, to the ecosystem. And and then how about the recreation activities? You have this wonderful. Parkway the pathway that’s right along the creek.
[00:36:13] So I know you do some bicycle events. What other sort of recreation opportunities do you provide people along the creek?
[00:36:19] Deb Kramer: So we do an annual backpacking trip up at Henry Coe State Park, which is really fun. It’s in April before it gets too hot and the wild flowers are still out. We’ve done hikes as well along the trail and in the Coyote Valley Open Space Preserve. We led for a while these Kelly Park sunset walks, in 2017. I talked to one of the rangers there and I said, What’s your programming like in this park? And they said, Well, we don’t really do much programming. And I thought, Well, let’s change this. This is an amazing resource and we should be able to take advantage of it. So I started the Kelly Park, Sunset Walks, and we ran those until the pandemic started.
[00:37:00] But they were a great way to, again, connect people to the creek using. Different methodologies. So it may have been like ranger day. And so we had rangers from different park entities come and talk about what they do or the tools that they use, like the water trucks for when there’s a fire. The Japanese friendship garden is located in Kelly Park.
[00:37:21] So we utilize the Japanese culture and their connection with water to have a really nice event. So there’s just different ways that we can connect people. And then nature walks would be another recreational activity where people are enjoying nature, learning about birds and plants kind of at a higher level, but then also just breathing fresher air cuz we do it during the winter.
[00:37:49] And the bike rides. I’ve been wanting to do more of these, but one of my favorite sections to do is from the Coyote Creek Visitor Center in Morgan Hill to Ogier Ponds because you go through a number of different zones within just the valley and there’s so many different things to talk about, including wildlife crossings and native plants.
[00:38:11] We happened to see goats out and they were doing fire control, which was fabulous
[00:38:16] Michael Hawk: saw the goats down there, just yesterday or no. Over the weekend. Yeah,
[00:38:19] Deb Kramer: Yeah. Over the weekend. . So that’s another nice thing that, that I’ve really wanted to get more involved with is the bike rides. And we also wanna make sure that it’s accessible for all. So by using the trail, we can do walks on the trails, which we’ve had people who’ve been using canes or have mobility issues and they can still participate.
[00:38:40] So for me, it’s really important to be able to have our activities reflect a lot of different types of people that can part.
[00:38:48] Michael Hawk: So I really like the strategic approach that you have where you have these three prongs that they can operate independently, but they support each other too. And you mentioned some people who participate in all three of the prongs, but what sort of staff does it take to organize all these events?
[00:39:05] Because there’s a lot of overhead in doing all of this. It’s quite impressive, by the way,
[00:39:09] Deb Kramer: Thank you. That’s a really nice compliment. I appreciate it. So when I started, it was just me and I was doing all these things and then I got overwhelmed and I got some, raised some more money and I hired an event coordinator who could help me with not only preparing the events, but then Being on site . So now we have five staff, which I’m very excited about. So we have an event coordinator, we have an interpretive coordinator, we have an event assistant. And we have also another interpretive coordinator who works just, during the event as opposed to preparing and following up on the event.
[00:39:47] And I’ve just been really happy that I’ve been able to find some amazing people that love doing what we do together. We really work in as a team and we fill in whenever somebody. Needs a little break and I can rely on the staff to follow through on the tasks that we need to have, especially at our events.
[00:40:09] And they know that they can come to me if they need some extra support in an area or to brainstorm, which I love hearing from the staff everybody’s got a different perspective and they see how things operate and can help inform whether we need to make any changes in how we operate. And I think having that clear communication and opportunity for people to share what they’re thinking and what they’re doing is super important for an organization to be successful. So still, I wanna say that we are really lean and I get a lot of compliments in how much we do with how few staff . We have.
[00:40:45] Michael Hawk: And I wanted to dig into that just maybe just a tiny bit more, what tips, suggestions, experiences that have worked well or maybe didn’t work well and scaling, these events?
[00:40:54] Have you encountered or would you be willing to.
[00:40:57] Deb Kramer: So I think one of the limitations is having steady volunteers. So we have, as part of our team leaders five volunteers who come out for the creek cleanups. And they may not always be there all the time, but we know that we can rely on three or four of them. And so that determines the size of our cleanups.
[00:41:19] Also for the bio blitzes, Merav and I do reach out to a lot of our colleagues to volunteer their time for a few hours, and I think that really makes a difference is being able to scale by using regular volunteers. Another thing is being able to have a steady income and we don’t sell stuff. And as a result, I have to get grants.
[00:41:43] And fortunately I’ve been able to get some regular grants from certain agencies and I’m just really grateful. And one of the things that I think is important is to show what that money has been able to accomplish. So I do go to their board meetings and share with them either a video or do a slide presentation to show them that their money was well spent and that people come back and say something about how, Wow, I come to this park regularly.
[00:42:16] But by going to a bio blitz, I never really saw what was in this park. And to me that was like an aha moment in that I had been hiking in certain areas, but it never really took the time to slow down and see them. And that’s what the bio blitzes have done. And so I’m really grateful that we’ve been funded a number of times by different organizations to continue these bio blitz.
[00:42:38] Michael Hawk: Yeah, I think Bio Blitzers are such an underutilized advocacy and outreach category. In fact Mira and I gave a presentation to an interpretive organization advocating for more use of bio blitz as in I don’t know if we told you this, but we used you as an example,
[00:42:55] Deb Kramer: well, thank you. I’m glad that I could be a positive example for you all.
[00:43:00] Michael Hawk: As a occasional, if not regular volunteer on the bio blitzes with. Keep Coyote Creek beautiful. One thing I wanted to give you feedback on that I think works really well is you show appreciation for the volunteers frequently in varying ways. Whether it’s a just a thank you or a little swag here and there, or , whatever the case might be.
[00:43:21] And I think that goes a really long way as well to, to keeping the volunteers coming back because that contributes to the positive and fun environment that you’ve been able to create. I wanted to make sure people were aware that, once you get your regular volunteers, don’t take them for granted and you don’t
[00:43:37] Deb Kramer: Definitely do not take my volunteers for granted. And I don’t let, I don’t even think that they’re my volunteers. It’s keep Coyote Creek beautiful as volunteers and that we’re working collaboratively towards a common goal, . This is not about Deb Kramer, it’s really about what we as a community can do together. And it’s funny because we just received an award from the San Jose Conservation Core because we were one of the first groups out of about eight who participated in the resilience core that the mayor established over a year ago.
[00:44:09] And it was to help young people in certain zip codes to have a. Job that was a living wage, paid a living wage, and that they also were able to save for college as part of that program. And out of that, the award was like, Oh, Deb, congratulations on your award’s. No, this is for the organization and all the people that made this happen.
[00:44:32] This is not about me. It’s really about all of us working together. And so I am really grateful that we have so many wonderful volunteers and we’re all making our best effort to beautify the creek and get people out there and learning about it.
[00:44:50] Michael Hawk: So in addition to your lean staff and your volunteers, I know you have lots of partnerships as well. Can you tell me a little bit about the partnerships you’ve develop?
[00:44:57] Deb Kramer: Yeah, I’d be happy to. We partner from the Bay all the way into the state park system now, so I feel like it’s been an amazing ride working with both agencies like the city of San Jose the Open Space Authority of Santa Clara Valley Valley Water. And they’ve provided funding, but also opportunities for.
[00:45:19] Being on the land that they manage. We also have worked with , a number of other CBOs, community based organizations such as the San Francisco Bay Bird Observatory out at the Bay and helping to weed whack, which was one of my favorite activities in the bird banding stations, so that the people volunteering there didn’t have to struggle through the weeds when they were collecting the birds.
[00:45:42] Also we have our city forest, which we do tree planting. We started that last year with them in the watershed itself. And we have also worked with OTN in doing bird walks. And the other organizations that come to mind are mothers out front, which one wouldn’t think is a partner, but we had Kite Valley.
[00:46:08] Common and we wanted to try to protect that. So that was another organization. So again, it’s through these partnerships that we all get to benefit, but everybody who participates in our events gets to learn more about those organizations as well.
[00:46:24] Michael Hawk: It becomes a self reinforcing community with all of the different partnerships that you’ve developed and fostered.
[00:46:31] Deb Kramer: Yes, and it’s been nice too because I’ve been able to introduce, for example, the Silicon Valley Bicycle Coalition to some of my partners and they’re now doing things together. So I like to think that we’re not exclusive, we’re inclusive. And so we do want to show that we work with a lot of different groups as opposed to just saying, This is my group and I’m not going to let you work with them.
[00:46:54] It’s about collaborating. Right. We’re, We’re after the same thing of having a healthy environment. So why not work together , That’s my philosophy.
[00:47:02] Michael Hawk: Yeah. And I think it’s just it’s straightforward too. I’m envisioning this Venn diagram of Coyote Creek and then all the different organizations that relate to Coyote Creek in some way. And all of those are opportunities to connect more people to your mission and get them out recreating, get them out, helping, whatever the case might be.
[00:47:18] It just, it’s. Genius in its simplicity, but I think a lot of people just overlook that because it’s hard work, it’s hard to reach out to people and make those connections.
[00:47:27] One thing I’ve also noticed is you’ve commissioned a few murals at some areas along the creek as well. Can you tell me about your strategy or the idea behind that?
[00:47:36] Deb Kramer: Yeah, thanks for asking about the murals, which is our latest endeavor. I’m just really excited about it. So when I first started working along Coyote Creek, I had met Paul J. Gonzalez, who is an artist, and he was working on a mural at Olinder School, which backs right up to Coyote Creek Trail.
[00:47:53] And so the mural was gonna be visible. By everyone who went on the section of the trail as well as the children who went to the school. And so we talked and we kept in touch over the last several years and we’d meet periodically and I kept saying, Gosh, I wanna figure out a way to work with you. And one day I just said, Darn it, I’m just gonna go look for some money and we’re gonna make this happen.
[00:48:14] And our first mural was a year ago near the Watson Park area, and it’s a school called Empire School. And it was his 200th mural and our first mural, and it was the entire watershed. So we had this giant length of wall, which is about 180 feet long. And we started with the hills where the water starts up at Henry Coe Park and.
[00:48:41] It flow down into the urban area and the creek and out to the bay. And then along the way there were things like, of course, a coyote. Every single one has to feature a coyote. And we had monarch butterflies and we had great blue herons. And then I said, You know, let’s do another one, Paul. And he’s Sure, let’s do another one.
[00:49:03] So we worked at Hellyer County Park and in the southern section of the park is Cottonwood Lake. So if you go over there, there’s a beautiful mural that includes the lake itself and a number of the things that we found from our bio blitzes.
[00:49:18] And we had a community paint day, so people got involved in painting the mural, which was a lot of fun. And then our third one, which we just completed, is at the Russo McEntee Academy. It’s in the Alum Rock School District within the watershed. But what makes it a special school is that the focus is on sustainability and environmental justice.
[00:49:42] And I just thought that it was the perfect school for us to work with for our third mural. And it includes people picking up trash, it’s got families enjoying looking at woodpeckers. And we had a paint day for the kids as well. But backing up before that, we actually had what we call , Mr.
[00:50:02] Adventures journey along Coyote Creek. So we had the kids come in and receive a watershed education where Mr. Adventure talked about what a watershed was and where the water went, and some of the critters along it. And then we also included.
[00:50:18] A multisensory experience for them where not only did we have audio in the background of water, but I had feathers that the children could feel. We also had live oak leaves so they could feel the prickliness of it. I had some hummingbird sage so they could smell it and feel the stickiness.
[00:50:38] For me, it was just really important that they got that before. We then asked them, What would you like to see on your mural? And they got to paint it, and is this a beautiful entry for the children and the staff who come to the school and they look at it. They always stop and look at it.
[00:50:52] Michael Hawk: Yeah, it’s another creative endeavor I hope people are listening and getting ideas.
[00:50:57] Deb Kramer: And they’re a great educational tool. So that’s one of the things that, for example, the Rangers in Hellyer Park are going to use the mural as an interpretive piece to talk about the different pieces of wildlife and nature that are there and how they’re connected.
[00:51:11] Michael Hawk: So I see our time is rapidly coming to an end. But before that happens I’d like to know what’s next for Keep Coyote Creek. Beautiful.
[00:51:21] Deb Kramer: So one of the things that happens as an organization gets to a certain point is they need to evolve. And that’s where we’re at now is we’ve been going for seven years. I’ve managed to build more relationships to do different activities, but I really feel like there’s another next big step that we need to take.
[00:51:41] And one of them is the idea of having a conservancy to manage some land. But before we can do that, we need to have a strategic plan and really see what our constituencies, as well as our board would like to do and how we make that happen. And. If we’re going to be a conservancy and have attractive land that we manage there’s a parcel, a number of parcels that I’m looking at stringing together, which is between Kelly Park on the south end all the way north to William Street Park is, it’s 270 acres of park land and it’s not very well used and there’s a lot of opportunity for restoration and creek enhancement and passive and active recreation.
[00:52:27] And so to get there, we need to put together strategic plan. And I also would like us to grow and have committees along the lines of the Sierra Club, where we have a water committee or a conservation committee and engage people maybe in a different way than coming out to a cleanup or in addition to a cleanup.
[00:52:46] And it also is a way for people who maybe don’t live in the immediate area, but really care about what we’re doing. Maybe they’ve moved and they can stay connected to what we’re doing.
[00:52:56] Michael Hawk: Sounds like big plans, how can people connect to you to learn about some of these advancements that you’re planning and pursuing?
[00:53:04] Deb Kramer: Well, we have a number of different avenues that people can learn about us and what we do, we have a website which not only has a list of activities and history of the creek, but also has blogs on it. So we’ve had guest writers who provide a different perspective from the staff and different activities that we’ve done.
[00:53:26] We also are on social media and have a LinkedIn profile, so we post our roundup of activities that we’ve done on Instagram and Facebook and advertise on Twitter as well. So our handle is @coyotecreeksj and our website is keepcoyotecreekbeautiful.org
[00:53:45] Michael Hawk: Great, and I’ll make sure to have links to those of course. In the notes.
[00:53:49] So to wrap up, there’s a few questions that I love to ask of my guests, and I’m just gonna jump right in. I hope you’re prepared.
[00:53:56] Deb Kramer: Shoot. Go ahead.
[00:53:58] Michael Hawk: If you could magically impart one ecological concept that helps the general public see the world as you’ve come to see it, what would that be?
[00:54:08] Deb Kramer: In a really quick phrase, everything is connected, so each thing like an insect or person even, plants, rocks, the tree, the sun, we’re all connected and my belief is that we need to hear, feel, see each of those and see how they’re connected and the activities that we do help people see that.
[00:54:31] Michael Hawk: Love it. I’ve heard this so many times and for my personality experiencing it is what really made it make sense. It was just words until I went out and experienced it, so I love that.
[00:54:43] Deb Kramer: Thanks.
[00:54:44] Michael Hawk: And do you have any books or documentaries or resources that you found particularly helpful, either in running your organization or just in advancing your knowledge and care of the environment .
[00:54:55] Deb Kramer: So on the book front two, were actually pretty influential. When I, one was influential when I was studying at uc, Berkeley, where I got my environmental science degree and it was Cadillac Desert. And it really showcased the history of California’s wetlands and how humans used the various water laws and land laws to impact how water flowed and moved throughout the water system.
[00:55:22] And it was scary to think of how things have evolved from . The tule reads and our grizzly bear, which is on our flag and no longer in our state. So what we have now, which is a desert, literally in the middle if you go down I highway five. And so that hugely influenced me as I was studying.
[00:55:44] And in the, again, thinking about everything is connected, water was the connection there. And then another one, which may seem odd is Garbology, and I had picked that book up before I worked in the waste management industry, but it had a huge impact on how I see my impact on the earth and my own choices with regards to what I purchase and trash and others trash.
[00:56:10] Now that a lot of the work we do is two times a month, picking up trash is how can we influence people to pick up the trash before it comes trash and put it in either the landfill or recycle, or think about recycling, right? Making choices before you actually purchase something.
[00:56:30] Michael Hawk: Absolutely. And there’s so much there that I know I can improve on. So a couple of good books. I haven’t read Garbology, but I’ll try to get it on my list and check it out. And we talked about. Your social media already, but I just wanted to highlight that one of the things that I find really fun that you do on social media is you sometimes highlight some of the interesting finds, some of the trash that you find that’s surprising or funny or just like, how the heck did this thing get here?
[00:56:59] So I encourage people to check it out and to follow you on social media. Visa are fun posts,
[00:57:05] Deb Kramer: They are and it’s really fun when I look in that folder on the Google Photos and I see who’s put what in there that they found was a weird trash item that I should try to post on social media. And there’re really, there are some really good ones.
[00:57:23] Michael Hawk: And that’s actually a great insight that you just gave there for people wanting to scale. So it sounds like what you said is you’ve created a Google Photos album that your volunteers can contribute to. Is that, Yeah, so So you have one called like weird items and they just contribute when they find it.
[00:57:40] Deb Kramer: exactly. Yeah.
[00:57:42] Michael Hawk: Such a great idea.
[00:57:43] Deb, is there anything else that you’d like to say before we close out today?
[00:57:46] Deb Kramer: I just hope people will get out and enjoy nature wherever it is and just keep in mind that everything is connected, whether they’re looking up or looking down or straight ahead. Everything is connected.
[00:57:58] Michael Hawk: And I think that getting out and enjoying nature would just make society so much better. across the board.
[00:58:05] Deb Kramer: for sure.
[00:58:06] Michael Hawk: All right, Deb, it’s been a pleasure. I have really enjoyed talking about your pathway and keep Coyote Creek beautiful. It’s a model organization, and thank you so much for spending the time with me today.
[00:58:18] Deb Kramer: you, Michael, for having me on your show. It’s been fun.