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About Verna Jigour, PhD & the evolution of Rainfall to Groundwater

Verna’s first olfactory memory is of what she now understands as the scent of actinomycetes in the fog-moistened soil of her Grandma’s San Francisco garden.  

Cherry orchards flanking Calabazas Creek formed the backdrop for her 1950s childhood in The Valley of Heart’s Delight.  Several stately valley oaks retained by the orchardists remain there today, their environments radically altered several times, yet they admirably, adaptively persist.

With well over a century of historical modification through imported European lifeways by the time of Verna’s childhood, the Santa Clara Valley still retained significant biodiversity – at least enough to delight and intrigue Verna’s innocent heart and mind.

She collected butterflies, flowers, rocks;  sea shells, sea stars and sand dollars from the nearby Pacific coast;  hung out with western gray squirrels in a creekside black walnut tree.  

She watched California red-legged frogs hatch from an egg mass pilfered from Coyote Creek, then hop around her own creekside home for a few years thereafter – their familiar Gestalt from her childhood causing her to notice when she found an unexpected population five decades later.

The creek was a safe place for adventures because its linearity meant she could never get lost.  (And she eschewed the rock salt bombardments her bolder brother was subject to when trespassing on the orchards.)

Verna retains visual memories of the historic 1955 floods that hit the entire state – images of the rising water at her family’s doorstep.  She nevertheless experienced the much later concrete channelization of Calabazas Creek as a betrayal by “civilization”.

The region was later re-branded Silicon Valley.  Cherries ceased being a viable crop as the urban heat island effects, combined with climate change, reduced the cumulative winter chill hours required to profitably grow cherries there.  (1960 saw enough snowfall to make a snowman on her front yard, but not since.)  

And, of course, significantly more lucrative industry has supplanted most agriculture there, though some persists and even thrives, given a hospitable environment and enthusiastic practitioners.

The area is now blessed with bountiful public natural open spaces, thanks to the foresight of a cadre of visionaries who’ve also loved the place.  But Verna wonders about the options for children’s daily exposure to diverse nature now that urbanization has displaced so much of it.  (Not to mention eyes glued to screens of various sizes.)

Verna’s current reading tends predominantly non-fiction, but as a youth she gravitated to science fiction amid the eclectic.  This penchant began in early grade school with Eleanor Cameron’s The Wonderful Flight to the Mushroom Planet and its sequels.  By middle school, J.D. Salinger was balanced  by more adult sci fi – Ellison, Asimov.  By late high school she was profoundly influenced by Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land.   

But the teen read that most uncannily foretold Verna’s ultimate professional path was Frank Herbert’s Dune.  In contrast to anyone else she knew who actually made it through that epic, she also voraciously devoured the appendix detail on half-Fremen Planetologist Liet-Kyne’s approach to restoring verdancy to the desert planet Arrakis.  High school biology hadn’t compelled at the time, so she didn’t foresee that interest connecting with an academic path.

With those roots, Verna was attracted, as a young adult, to hiking and backpacking, which led her into the natural sciences, inspired by truly superlative instructors – Jack Alves, in particular, at San Jose City College.  She worked part-time in the Physical Sciences Dept., setting up equipment and preparing reagents for chemistry labs.

She transferred to UC Davis and graduated with a Bachelor of Science in Botany.  While there she worked part-time in plant breeding research and as a seasonal state agricultural inspector in Dixon, along with early short-term Botany Dept. jobs.

Returning to the south Bay Area/ Central Coast, she worked for a few years in agriculture-related fields, including state ag inspector in Salinas, wine tasting room/ cellar work, and plant breeding research.

Within a couple years she knew she wanted more but wasn’t sure what.  She thought she might like to work on environmental impact reports but wasn’t sure how to approach that.  Career counselors at Cabrillo College, Aptos, guided her to an even better path – the field of landscape architecture.

She studied up on the field, delighted to learn that, while park and garden design were part of the package, landscape architecture includes planning for large and regional landscapes, including environmental analysis pursuant to planning and environmental impact assessment.  The entire field called to her.

Approaching graduation at UCD, she had been intrigued hearing how Cal Poly grads were favored by employers for their ability to “hit the ground running” upon hiring.  With only two California options for a Master of Landscape Architecture degree, Verna opted for Cal Poly Pomona’s “learn by doing” approach and never regretted that decision.

The Cal Poly Master of Landscape Architecture program, chaired by the late John Lyle, who became Verna’s most influential mentor there, emphasized “ecosystematic” planning and regenerative design.   

She completed both the Planning and Design tracks of the masters program and, with her botany/ natural sciences perspective, put her own spin on them.   During those years, ecological restoration, conservation biology and landscape ecology emerged as disciplines and Verna was drawn to applying all in her work.

Knowledge and skills Verna acquired during that program enabled her to, indeed, “hit the ground running” upon employment and she was soon entrusted with profound project planning responsibilities for some quite “juicy” natural resource projects in southern California.  

She participated in the inception of the California Chapter of Society for Ecological Restoration (SERCAL), served on its first year Board of Directors and contributed numerous unattributed, some attributed, articles to its newsletter, Ecesis, over its first several years.

Within three years of graduating, Verna returned to the south San Francisco Bay Area as an independent consultant, but continued to consult on various conservation/ ecological restoration planning and design projects in southern California for two decades after returning north.

During the mid-1990s she designed and taught a UC Santa Cruz Extension course in Ecological Restoration and embarked on a unique, self-directed/ designed doctoral odyssey in Conservation Ecology through the Union Institute and University.

Verna completed her doctoral internship in service of two community groups in the Big Sur/ Ventana Wilderness vicinity.  She helped get the first Big Sur Wild Watersheds Faire funded and, most significantly, garnered a $250,000 grant for invasive pest plant removal on the Big Sur coast, implemented by California State Parks Monterey Ranger District.

Five years after she’d first aspired to it, in 1998 the opportunity arose to fund a local/ regional version of The Wildlands Project, visualizing a conservation biology paradigm for California’s Central West Ecoregion.

The opportunity had been there for several California regional groups but Verna’s proposal was the first to get funded.  The Ventana Wildlands Project team convened in early 1999 at the UC Santa Cruz Geographic Information Systems (GIS) Lab.  

Such Wildlands Projects strongly emphasized habitat connectivity for terrestrial species – true in our case, as well.  But, having drawn up a schematic vision of the array of regional conservation issues and potential focal species/ groups while developing the funding proposal, Verna had another spatial orientation, encompassing watersheds.  She elected to use steelhead as focal species for her own component of the project.

When she found no suitable existing GIS data on California steelhead, Verna concluded she must develop her own and did so – with technical, grant-paid and even some volunteer assistance.  

She derived GIS attribute data from “Table 4. Status summary of California steelhead in coastal drainages south of San Francisco Bay”  (Titus and colleagues 1999) and oriented the spatial data to county maps showing streams represented in the manuscript, all provided by California Department of Fish and Game (now Wildlife) staff.  

Once the substantial effort required to develop the steelhead GIS database from the state’s data was complete, it enabled keying the steelhead streams to their watersheds (defined in Calwater), which then permitted correlation of watershed factors with steelhead status.

Insights afforded Verna through that process inspired the subsequent (intensive) doctoral dissertation effort precipitating Rainfall to Groundwater, as summarized in History of Rainfall to Groundwater.

Meanwhile, Verna served as independent consultant on a variety of stimulating natural resource, including watershed scale, projects for public and private, including nonprofit, organizations and individuals.  Consulting ISA Certified Arborist for two decades, her arboricultural insights have only deepened through her doctoral and subsequent related learning, and vice-versa.  Her cumulative years consulting have offered much learning in themselves.

While other events transpired in the interim since completing her doctoral program – “taking the long way round”  – Verna has essentially lived to bring these insights to you, in a way that may be readily assimilated, applied and will evolve over time.  She intends that Rainfall to Groundwater will achieve that aim.