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California 'whale tail' grants benefit local projects

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Ever wonder what the California "whale tail" license plate is all about?

Drivers who pay a little extra for the ocean-themed plate are contributing to a statewide fund that the California Coastal Commission uses each year to pay for grassroots projects that protect or educate about the coast.

On Feb. 9, in a record-breaking year of grant giving, the Coastal Commission dished out $3.2 million for 91 projects across the state—including eight in the San Luis Obispo/Santa Barbara/Ventura tri-county region.

RESTORING WATERSHESDS Thanks to a recent grant funded by the "whale tail" license plate program, nonprofit Creek Lands Conservation plans to launch a  new program centered on restoring the Santa Maria watershed and educating the public. - FILE PHOTO BY AMY ASMAN
  • File Photo By Amy Asman
  • RESTORING WATERSHESDS Thanks to a recent grant funded by the "whale tail" license plate program, nonprofit Creek Lands Conservation plans to launch a new program centered on restoring the Santa Maria watershed and educating the public.

"This is our second whale tail grant," said Don Chartrand, executive director at Creek Lands Conservation, an Arroyo Grande-based nonprofit devoted to healthy watersheds. "The last one helped us preserve the Pismo clam. ... It's perfect for the mission we're on."

With its latest $47,226 grant, Creek Lands Conservation is pursuing a new program focused on the Santa Maria River watershed. Seen by most locals from Highway 101 as a river that rarely flows, the watershed is plagued by issues and is not very well understood, Chartrand said.

"That's a nod to the sad truth that the Santa Maria River is not a terribly loved river or watershed and has been sort of neglected for a long time," Chartrand said. "The intention is to teach, in culturally sensitive terms, what constitutes a healthy watershed and to actually integrate curriculum into area schools."

Chartrand said the nonprofit has plans to install a new water monitoring network in the river to collect data, provide a watershed "report card" for the public, and grow awareness by adding educational signage on the river.

"Our job is to create lasting, better relationships between people and nature on the Central Coast," Chartrand said.

That is also the job of the Central Coast Aquarium in Avila Beach. Its $10,000 whale tail grant will ensure that local classrooms can continue taking field trips to the aquarium, benefiting from hands-on marine science education.

"We are committed to reaching students of all backgrounds, especially those from many Title I schools in SLO County and Santa Maria," said Gaby Morales, director of operations at Central Coast Aquarium. "We're the SLO County resource for marine education."

Morales said students who visit the aquarium get to experience a squid dissection, marine mammal and shark biology lessons, and more. The aquarium's special connection with local schools is personal for Morales.

"The reason I came to [work at] the aquarium is I went on a school trip here when I was in high school," said Morales, who grew up in Santa Maria. "That was the first time I experienced marine life. Having that opportunity made such a huge impact on my life I decided to study marine biology. That's why I'm here, and I want to be able provide that opportunity for other students like myself."

Some whale tail grants went directly to local schools. The Cabrillo High School Aquarium in Lompoc received a $50,000 grant to implement the "interpretive phase" of its Coastal Splash Project, like installing signage and exhibit lighting throughout the aquarium.

The Santa Maria Parks and Recreation Department also took home a $27,000 grant that will pay for a new, on-campus lunch and after-school program at a local middle school. Dennis Smitherman, the department's recreational services manager, said that the program will offer "fun, STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts, and math) curriculum" focused on marine ecosystems. The grant will also help facilitate more school field trips to the beach.

"As close as we live to it, it's quite surprising to learn how many of these kids have never gone to the beach before," Smitherman said.

Achievement House and NCI Affiliates—sister nonprofits that provide employment and job training to local adults with disabilities—also received whale tail funds. The $31,000 grant will help them integrate "environmental education, ocean stewardship, civic engagement, and community partnerships" and "regular visits to the coast" into their programming.

Fast fact

• SLO County families with loved ones in long-term care facilities are invited to join two free upcoming virtual Family Council meetings, hosted by Long Term Care Ombudsman Services and Alzheimer's Association California Central Coast, on March 5 and 9. At the sessions, participants can "learn about residents' rights and other tools of improving quality of life for your loved one" and "get tips on how to advocate for your loved one effectively." The meetings are scheduled for 10 to 11:30 a.m. on March 5, and 2 to 3 p.m. on March 9. For more information, contact Laura DeLoye at ladeloye@alz.org. Δ

Reach Assistant Editor Peter Johnson at pjohnson@newtimesslo.com.

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