WATSONVILLE -- Ducks paddled by the thicket of willow, coyote brush, tule and yarrow that line Watsonville Slough. An egret rested in the shallows. Nearby, walkers strolled along a trail with leashed dogs.
Karen Christensen stood on the Ohlone Parkway bridge overlooking the slough on Wednesday, taking it all in.
Once, the area was a polluted dumping ground. Today, it shelters wildlife, helps control flooding and provides a place where an urban community can connect with nature.
Christensen played no small part in making the transformation possible, cobbling together nearly $2 million in grants to cover costs.
And that's just one project. As executive director of the Resource Conservation District of Santa Cruz County, she's been helping preserve and restore the natural landscape for the more than a decade. Her work has been noticed.
The James Irvine Foundation will present Christensen with a 2013 Leadership Award in a ceremony Feb. 4 in Sacramento. The award comes with a $125,000 cash prize to further her organization's efforts.
Her joy, Christensen said, comes from taking projects "from conversation to the ground."
Nurturing dialogue is one of the hallmarks of Christensen's success. She's brought together government officials, property owners and nonprofit leaders to further conservation goals. The idea is to have everyone from permitting agencies to landowners involved in the creation of a project rather than providing feedback once the design's in place, Christensen said. That gives everyone the incentive to find solutions to the challenges that crop up.
"That's always the theme," she said. "Who are the people who need to be at the table? How do we engage these groups?"
The James Irvine Foundation presents the awards to showcase solutions that can be models to California's pressing problems, said Program Director Amy Dominguez-Arms.
In 2011, Dori Rose Inda, executive director of the Watsonville Law Center, won the award for spearheading the development of a system that links farmworkers hurt on the job with medical care.
The foundation recognizes "achievement as well as an effective approach," Dominguez-Arms said. "The selection committee was impressed by the way Karen has worked across sectors to achieve great solutions."
Under Christensen's leadership, the conservation district has worked to support struggling steelhead and coho salmon on the North Coast, reduce agricultural runoff in South County, lessen the fuel load in wildfire-prone forests, and help landowners obtain permits to restore streams and riparian areas.
In Watsonville, Christensen worked with the county Regional Transportation Commission and Caltrans to direct funding set aside to mitigate the environmental impact of the Highway 1 widening project in North County to the slough restoration.
Steve Palmisano, Watsonville's interim public works director, said Christensen not only played a crucial role in the wetlands project, but also secured funding for a city project to install a $1 million fish ladder on Corralitos Creek.
"She thinks big picture, and she brings so much to the community," Palmisano said. "We're lucky to have her."
Christensen said she'll use the award to strengthen her own organization and its statewide association. She also wants to develop a plan for a "wellness park," a place where people can explore nature and learn about health and well-being. She's not sure what that would look like. It's just an idea now.
"I want to develop a vision," she said.
Follow Sentinel reporter Donna Jones on Twitter at Twitter.com/DonnaJonesSCS