VENTURA COUNTY, Calif. – The Utom Conservation Fund, a group of cultural and environmental organizations, has awarded $60,000 in scholarships and fellowships to students dedicated to the conservation of the Santa Clara River, also known as Utom.

Utom, or Santa Clara River, runs from the Angeles National Forest in Los Angeles County to the Pacific Ocean in Ventura County.
Utom, or Santa Clara River, runs from the Angeles National Forest in Los Angeles County to the Pacific Ocean in Ventura County. Credit: J.P. Rose/Center for Biological Diversity

Five undergraduate students received scholarships of $2,000 each and four graduate students received fellowships of $12,500 each to further their study and research in watershed and environmental protection.

Utom is a 116-mile river that flows from the Angeles National Forest in northern Los Angeles County to Ventura County, where it empties into the Pacific Ocean. The Chumash people named it Utom, or Phantom River, because water flow can come and go like a phantom. The watershed is home to more than 110 special-status species, including California red-legged frogs, arroyo toads and unarmored threespine sticklebacks.

“We’re honored to help support the next generation of water protectors, scientists and cultural practitioners on the Utom,” said Mati Waiya, founder and executive director of Wishtoyo Chumash Foundation. “Our investment in these scholars is an investment toward the enormous amount of work needed to protect the natural flow and kinship relationships between the diversity of species that exist throughout the river ecosystem, especially in the face of climate change and ongoing drought.”

“The future of this biologically diverse watershed depends on the commitment of dedicated scientists and activists like these students,” said Peter Galvin, cofounder and director of programs at the Center for Biological Diversity. “As California enters its fourth consecutive year of a severe drought, it’s more important than ever to invest in ways to keep this special river flowing in its natural state.”

The nine recipients are students from colleges and universities across Southern California. Four graduate students who are pursuing their master’s degree or doctorate, with research projects specific to Utom, were selected.

“It is an honor to receive the Utom Conservation Fund Fellowship, which will support my doctoral research on how changing flows along the Utom River affect people and biodiversity,” said Melissa von Mayrhauser, a fellowship recipient studying environmental science, policy and management at UC Berkeley. “I hope this research will provide local partners with valuable data and support future restoration efforts in this beloved Southern California watershed in the ancestral homelands of the Chumash people.”

Also receiving a fellowship are: Rachel Bockrath, who is studying biology at Cal State Polytechnic University in Pomona; Noah Szceszinksi, who is studying biology and plant ecology at Cal State Polytechnic University, Pomona; and Lyna Ngor, who is studying environmental science and entomology at UC Riverside.

The five scholarship recipients are undergraduate students who show passion and dedication for protecting the environment and the Utom watershed. They are: Misheel Unur and Caroline Shoemake from College of the Canyons, Sarah Azzoto from Cal State University Northridge, Claire Kosek from Occidental College and Kenna Gonzales from UC Berkeley.

“Our tribe is proud to help these exceptional students pursue their educational goals through scholarships and fellowships from the Utom Conservation Fund,” said Kenneth Kahn, Tribal chairman for the Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians. “We are inspired by their passion for the environment and hope their studies result in new insights on how best to protect the Utom River and the surrounding landscape.”

The Utom Conservation Fund Scholarship and Fellowship is managed by the Center, Wishtoyo Chumash Foundation, Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians and the California Native Plant Society. The Utom Conservation Fund was established with settlement money from litigation to protect this unique watershed.

The Center for Biological Diversity is a national, nonprofit conservation organization with more than 1.7 million members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places.