The San Lorenzo River is one of the city’s most crucial fresh-water sources, is a protected natural habitat, and runs through the heart of downtown, and yet the area is plagued by public safety problems and a tainted image. With the help of the Coastal Watershed Council, can Santa Cruz embrace its river?
By Joel Hersch
There was a time in Santa Cruz, well over 100 years ago, when the San Lorenzo River was the city’s crown jewel.
Sports fishermen flocked from near and far to reel in huge salmon from the river’s flowing waters, annual “Venetian Water Carnivals” drew hundreds to behold an ornate boat procession, and local boys waged territory feuds over swimming holes on hot summer days.
The river mouth garnered new fame when it became the site of the first surfing in the mainland United States—a milestone achieved by the now legendary three Hawaiian princes in 1885.
But the gleaming identity of the San Lorenzo and its place in the community changed dramatically years later, during the 1950s. Major flooding prompted major levee development, effectively walling off the waters, transforming the river from a popular attraction into what some think of today as a crime-ridden back alley with a reputation for drug dealings, petty theft and nefarious activity.
Over the past decade, the sense that the river has fallen to neglect has exacerbated. But one local nonprofit, the Coastal Watershed Council, has made it their mission to change all of that. In recent years, the environmental nonprofit has been working tirelessly to cultivate new bonds between the Santa Cruz community and the San Lorenzo River. Their efforts include hands-on educational fieldwork, water-quality monitoring, river-centric events, and data-driven analysis. The way they see it, Santa Cruz has lost sight of the many facets of value that the San Lorenzo River represents, and, as a result, an invaluable river resource has fallen by the proverbial wayside.
“Our work is in reconnecting a healthy watershed to a vibrant community,” says Greg Pepping, executive director of the Coastal Watershed Council (CWC), from their office overlooking the Santa Cruz Harbor. “We want people to realize that the historical connections the community has had to the river are still there. The river is still an important part of our economy, our public health and our quality of life—it’s our drinking water supply; a key habitat—and [we want to] remind people of this so they’re aware of the river and want to care for it.”
The San Lorenzo River has always been a critical source of fresh water—approximately 54 percent of the city’s water supply is sourced from the river’s surface. It’s also home to around 238 species of birds, as well as endangered fish including the tidewater goby, Coho salmon, and the threatened steelhead trout, according to the CWC.
The river remains one of Santa Cruz’s most important resources and a key habitat, but its role as central to the city’s character was swept away in the years following construction of the levee. Prior to the levee, when Santa Cruz celebrated the river, periodic but repeated flooding would throw the city’s development into a tailspin.
“There would be boom and bust, lots of prosperity, and then a big flood, one after the other,” Pepping says. “One of the biggest was during Christmas, 1955—four feet of river water on Pacific Avenue caused a big transition for the community.”
Not long after, the Army Corps of Engineers straightened the river and constructed the embankment—which the paved, four-mile San Lorenzo Riverwalk is laid on top of—to contain the inevitable floodwaters. City leaders began shifting away from cultivating Santa Cruz’s brand as a tourist destination and that vibrant association the community once had with the river was never fully restored.
“That was a big shift away from connectivity,” Pepping says. “We’re physically cut off—visually cut off, emotionally, and psychologically.”
In an effort to change that, the CWC has built a coalition of local organizations transform the overall perception people have of the river from blighted danger zone to vibrant resource.
The CWC organized and hosted more than 60 events in 2016 with a variety of themes, each geared toward revitalizing the public’s interest and sense of stewardship. Last summer, a farm-to-table benefit dinner called “Meander” drew more than 100 patrons to San Lorenzo Park, a spoken word gathering called “Voices of the River” hosted a number of poets, and a more recent event had members of Santa Cruz Fly Fisherman teach people how to cast a line and pull in a fish. Throughout the fall, CWC also hosted regular water-quality monitoring excursions, called “Citizen Science,” and organized invasive plant species removal parties dubbed “River Health Days.”
“The idea has been to overwhelm the negativity with positivity and create a better picture for people just how important the river is for all of us,” Pepping says. “To some people, it’s an irrigation ditch, or just a flood control channel, when it could be this great urban park. All those different pieces add up to the transformation we’re working toward.”
“It’d gotten to a point where people were not coming down to the river out of fear of being harassed or witnessing illegal behavior, and it wasn’t fair to the residents and [the river] certainly wasn’t living up to its potential,” says Deputy City Manager Scott Collins.
Collins says that the river’s increasingly negative reputation was being driven incrementally over the years by the presence of homeless encampments, used syringes turning up in large quantities during watershed cleanups, drug dealings, and occasional violent crimes.
In August 2016, a transient couple was arrested after getting into an altercation with a 24-year-old man on the San Lorenzo River levee and then shooting him to death, which galvanized the community and city into action.
The following month, in September, a 45-year-old woman’s body was found on the north end of the river levee, where the investigation led officers to believe she perished from a drug overdose. Previously, in February 2016, four men were arrested by undercover police officers after selling them heroin and methamphetamine in San Lorenzo Park.
The criminal activity and drug issues were causing public concern to reach a boiling point, ultimately prompting officials to make new commitments to improve the river levee, focusing primarily on public safety. In November, the city allocated $230,000 for the San Lorenzo River levee, which includes funding for new security cameras, new lighting along Front Street, and converting five part-time park ranger jobs into full-time positions.
“The city recognizes that the Riverwalk and the San Lorenzo Park are community assets, and we’ve always taken great care to make them places where people want to go to have a good time, to recreate and enjoy nature, because it’s kind of in the center of town,” Collins says. “If you do spend time there, you realize that you can get away from the hustle and bustle of the city within minutes. It’s a pretty dramatic difference, which is cool, and we want people to enjoy that.”
Long-term plans being considered by the city include new urban development guidelines along the river. Currently, buildings face away from the San Lorenzo, creating a back-alley environment that fails to fuse the downtown culture and commerce with the river. Plans could require new development to have river-facing storefronts, and potentially first-floor cafes that help to activate the Riverwalk space.
Another initiative the CWC has pushed is to get the community recreating on the river—paddling, rowing, fishing—hoping to further foster the community’s relationship with the watershed. In 2013, Pepping launched a program for up to 50 people to paddle the river, but a community of bird watchers expressed their concern that the activity could disrupt animals’ natural habitat, which happens to be a highly diverse ecosystem. The city council commissioned a two-part biological baseline assessment in 2015 investigating which birds live and nest along the riverbank, which will help determine the future of paddling the San Lorenzo River. Otherwise, a special permit from the city’s Parks and Recreation department is required to paddle the river. According to Pepping, the CWC wants to make access easier and hopes that the city, after reviewing the data, can strike a balance between habitat preservation and recreation. However, final say on river use will fall under the jurisdiction of the California Coastal Commission.
While the water quality of the river has a fairly bad reputation, Pepping speculates that it’s not as bad as many people think it is. According to the county’s Environmental Health Service monitoring program, Main Beach at the river mouth tests at 52 colonies of E. Coli bacteria per 100 milliliters of water—giving it a “green,” or swimmable, rating—and the river itself is rated at 256, indicated with a “yellow” cautionary advisory. The majority of bacteria comes from birds, with some from faulty sewer laterals, and some from homeless encampments, the latter of which have the highest likelihood of causing someone to get sick after contact.
“We really want to eliminate human sources of bacteria so that it’s clean enough to swim in,” Pepping says. “That’s a vision that really excites people. But that’s a complicated issue—more of a social services problem that we all need to address.”
The CWC aims to improve the river’s water quality by 25 percent by the end of 2018—compared to 2014 bacteria levels—by facilitating cleanups and improving environmental stewardship. They also plan to increase the number of people engaging in positive activities, such as biking and picnicking, along the San Lorenzo by 15 percent by June 2017. In CWC parlance, these San Lorenzo recreationists are known as “river revelers.”
The real goal is to see the space thrive, says Pepping.
“We want to see the river become a destination,” he says. “Imagine if it was part of the dialogue of main attractions for Santa Cruz, just like the beach. Then we’d have a river town right here in Surf City. That would genuinely transform the community, and that’s the bigger picture that we’re really driven by.”