Cal Poly Pomona graduate students Rachel Bockrath and Noah Szceszinski, who are pursuing master’s degrees in biology, have been awarded a $12,500 fellowship each to support their research of the Santa Clara River, called Utom, or Phantom River, by the Chumash people.
Bockrath, a student in Biological Sciences Professor Elizabeth Scordato’s lab, and Szceszinski are two of nine student recipients who will share in a total of $60,000 in scholarships and fellowships the Utom Conservation Fund awarded colleges and universities across Southern California. The funds will be put toward their further study and research in watershed and environmental protection.
The Utom River is in the largest watershed in Southern California, and has so far preserved its natural state, meaning it contains critically endangered plants and animals. The river flows for about 116 miles from its head in the Angeles National Forest and touches the San Gabriel Mountains before emptying into the stretch of Pacific Ocean between Oxnard and Ventura.
“The Utom River is important because it is a relatively undeveloped major waterway, a rarity in Southern California, and thus an important area for conservation,” said Bockrath, a hometown resident of Vacaville. “I have recorded several threatened species and subspecies during my surveys along the riverbanks. It is also a beautiful place to do research. I begin surveys at dawn, and every sunrise in the valley is breathtaking.”
According to the official Utom River Conservation website, over 95 percent of historic river woodlands have been lost in this region, making Utom the last publicly accessible, free-flowing river. Human activities have permanently altered two-thirds of Earth’s 242 longest rivers, with the use of dams, reservoirs, water extraction and sediment trapping. The Utom River was able to escape this fate in part due to the many rivers and streams, that flow into its larger body, including the Santa Paula Creek, Piru Creek, Boquet Canyon and Mint Canyon.
Some of the area’s most essential cultural and natural areas are found along the Utom River, including Chumash village sites, trading routes and traditional gathering sites. The indigenous Chumash peoples have roots in the Channel Islands and Santa Monica Mountains that date back at least 15,000 years.
Their surroundings and natural environments inspired all aspects of their culture, from surviving rock and cave art to ceremonies and songs which are still passed down today. The Chumash maritime culture has been called one of the most unique and advanced in the content, with a vast expanse of knowledge we can still learn from in the ways they respected and feared the natural world, from sea to shore and sky.
Critical as it is to save the plants and animals so culturally important to their biologically diverse native surroundings and the Chumash people, the watershed has been vastly underexplored, and could contain even more ecological wonders yet to be discovered, according to Bockrath.
All of the awarded students are focused on their social and environmental responsibility and dedicated to researching how best to preserve the Utom River.
The California Native Plant Society, Center for Biological Diversity, Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians and the Wishtoyo Chumash Foundation forged a unified front to encourage a continued passion for and dedication to preserving the Utom River and all its important resources.
“I am very excited to share my findings with the stakeholders in the valley, and the wider world,” Bockrath said. “I am very grateful to have received this generous grant from the Utom Conservation Fund.”
To learn more about the Utom River and its conservation fund, visit https://utomriverconservation.org/