The Ecology Center: Saving the Planet One DIY Tip at a Time

Sal holds a Political Science degree from the George Washington University. He's written about all things environment since 2007.

7 million. That’s roughly how many people are added to our planet's population each month. Such a staggering growth rate shines a bright light on resources like food, water, and energy. Will there be enough to go around? Our weekly series, The Sustainables, profiles the folks doing their part to ensure that there is.

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Executive Director Evan Marks of The Ecology Center. (Photo: Salvatore Cardoni)

There’s a 13-foot tall blue monster in the backyard of a 133-year-old Victorian farmhouse in San Juan Capistrano, California.

His name is Juggy and while there’s no need to be scared of him, you should be terrified of what he represents—mankind’s gluttonous consumption of water.

A/k/a “The Juggernaut Monster,” Juggy is a sculpture made of 365 five-gallon water drums. Now retired and partially disassembled, he was the figurehead of a larger water consumption exhibit at The Ecology Center, a solutions-based eco-educational facility.

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What's left of 'Juggy,' the water jug monster designed to teach vistitors at The Ecology Center how to lower their water footprint. (Photo: Salvatore Cardoni)

Most of the center’s first floor is dedicated to that exhibit, “Splash! How Good Water Works.” Visitors are given 10 fairly simple tips to reduce their daily water footprint. It’s a crucial lesson given the fact that the average Southern Californian's daily water footprint exceeds 1,800 gallons. Scientists consider 950 gallons to be a global sustainable standard.

“We help you defeat the monster,” says Evan Marks, the center’s Executive Director.

Since opening its doors in November 2008, The Ecology Center has entertained and enlightened more than 20,000 visitors. This year, because of the Easter holiday, the center held its Earth Day event a week early, on Saturday, April 16.

Hundreds of fair-goers of all ages moseyed through the 19th century home and across its vegetated grounds. In addition to participating in temporary workshops for kite-making and DIY herb salve, visitors perused the center’s five permanent eco-labs.

The food lab features a geodesic dome greenhouse and an interactive vegetable garden. The waste lab has a chicken coop, orchard, and vermicomposting bin.

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Twins Mitchell and Mason Allison, age 3, join their sister Molly Allison, age 7, on the treadle pump. (Photo: Salvatore Cardoni)

For the children in attendance, the most popular attraction was the treadle pump—a stairmaster-esque device typically used in rural parts of Africa and Asia as a means for small farmers to pressurize their water supply.

Because the center harvests rainwater during the winter months in a 550-gallon tank, it has the same need as those rural farmers, says Marks.

“We thought what better way to activate the kids than to get them doing a little bit of exercise as well as connecting the dots between water and food,” says Marks.

Another popular to-do was a seed ball-making workshop sponsored by Killer Dana. The surf shop has launched a co-op community card for those who sign up for a 2011 membership to the center. Five percent of all sales at the shop are then donated back to the center. “Earth Day to me is about education and becoming more involved,” says Kacee Spurny, a content manager for Killer Dana who was volunteering at the workshop.

Jen Long of Costa Mesa said that festivities “…mean a lot if people come who aren’t the choir, that’s the hard part.”

For Lora Allison, the community service coordinator at St. Margaret’s Episcopal School in San Juan Capistrano, the day was about passing along the right sustainability practices to her three young children.

“First and foremost, I care deeply about the food that they eat and wanting them to understand how magical getting your hands dirty can be and growing your own food can be,” says Allison. “Food shouldn’t be processed, it should be pure.”

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Perusing the assortment of organic vegetables and flowers.  (Photo: Salvatore Cardoni)

Once a week, as part of its Gardens for Life program, the center hosts twenty-five children from the Boys and Girls Club of Capistrano Valley and Mission Hospital to learn about food, farming, and nutrition. “They’re taught everything from greenhouse work and seed germination all the way to preparing a meal for their families,” says Marks.

That the production of organic food is such a staple of the organization’s advocacy should come as no surprise to anyone who knew Marks in his pre-Ecology Center years.

After majoring in Agroecology at the University of Santa Cruz—“the Harvard of organic farming,” says Marks—he dove headlong into a career of transforming modern agriculture through integrated organic systems management.

He worked on domestic farms in California and Hawaii. His international work included stints in Costa Rica, Peru, Mexico, and Ghana. Then, in 2008, while working in Nigeria for US AID, he arrived at a personal and professional crossroads.

“I guess what I realized was that lasting change happens when you’re permanent somewhere,” says Marks. “I wanted to commit to something where I can see the lasting change, and logistically and geographically, that needed to be back where I was from.”

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The 133-year-old Congdon House serves as the home base for The Ecology Center. (Photo: Salvatore Cardoni)

That opportunity was lurking in the dusty wooden floorboards of an abandoned farmhouse on a dirt road in San Juan Capistrano. Built in 1878 by Pony Express Rider Joel Rathburn Congdon, the historic Congdon House is the oldest wooden structure in the city.

In 1991, it was bought by the city as part of the open-space bond purchase. Renovated in 2001 with $350,000 in city funding, it sat unoccupied until 2008 when the city accepted bids for future tenants. Enter Marks, whose ecological proposal beat out 30 others in a unanimous vote by the city council.

The most interesting facet of the Congdon House isn’t that it’s now a working model of the sustainable practices the center preaches, but rather that it stood tall through 133 years of societal, environmental, agricultural, and industrial change. Sure, it was uninhabited for years, but, with the help of an educated and enlightened populace, it is now back on its feet.

That sort of second chance at a new life reminds us of what’s in store for Juggy. Earlier this year, he was disassembled and moved off the property's front yard.

At first, an open contest was held on how to repurpose Juggy's 365 drums. That’s no longer the case. “We got a lot of great fun ideas from different individuals, but we’ll probably end up donating him as a whole to an art museum," says Marks.

Sounds like the best way to handle a retired monster—but what else would you expect from a man who greeted his event's guests with a badge that read: “I am part of the solution.”

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