The transformation of Swan Canyon

City Heights youths, including those pictured here in November, have played a key role in restoring Swan Canyon.

City Heights youths, including those pictured here in November, have played a key role in restoring Swan Canyon.

Carla Pisbe remembers well the first time she ventured down into one of City Heights’ canyons. As a freshman at Hoover High School, she took part in a tour led by the science education organization Ocean Discovery Institute. Pisbe learned about native plants and the watershed, and was encouraged to imagine what these places – long degraded by trash, transients and illegal activity – could look like if the community took action.

“As a student with Ocean Discovery, I learned that I really can make a difference, both for the environment and for my community,” Pisbe said. “The more I learned about the social and environmental issues in our canyons, the more I realized this was a place I could make an impact.”

A decade later, Pisbe’s impact is obvious. She is now the environmental stewardship coordinator at the Ocean Discovery Institute. Pisbe and countless others have succeeded in transforming the once-neglected canyon to the point that the institute’s main focus of rehabilitation now is on a new area in nearby Manzanita Canyon.

Ocean Discovery Institute’s annual spring Watershed Avengers cleanup March 7 will be the last at Swan Canyon. Though regular maintenance of Swan Canyon habitat will continue, large-scale cleanups no longer are needed.

The numbers are impressive. Since the work on five acres in Swan Canyon started in 2007, more than 3,000 pounds of trash have been removed, 5,000 native plants have taken root, and the invasive species Arundo donax is nearly wiped out. In all, the organization has restored 20 acres of once-degraded watershed across San Diego.

“Prior to Watershed Avengers, the street areas (of Swan Canyon) were used as dumping grounds for trash, sofas, mattresses and appliances,” said Sue Pelley, a retired senior park ranger with the San Diego Park & Recreation Department. “Street debris was carried into the channel by storm water and caught in the Arundo and impossible to remove.”

By rolling up their sleeves, neighborhood residents have discovered the value of these natural spaces. Sonya Vargas, who grew up in City Heights and helped plan the first large Swan Canyon restoration event as a high school student, has witnessed that transformation firsthand.

“These restoration events don’t just improve the quality of our canyons and wildlife, they improve the quality of our lives,” Vargas said. “By bringing us closer to nature, they motivate us to be stewards of the environment in our daily lives.”

Added Pelley: “Human beings have an intrinsic need to feel one with nature. When we value our natural world, in any small or large way, we value our place in that world. When we care for these natural places we are consciously in alignment with the laws of nature. This feeds the soul.”

The March 7 Watershed Avengers event is scheduled for 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. at Hamilton Elementary School. For more information, contact Carla Pisbe at