The San Lorenzo River Project

by Traci Hukill

Oct. 14, 2013—All the great cities of the world have their rivers. Paris has its Seine, Shanghai its Yangtze, New York its Hudson and its East rivers. But as we hear over and over, Santa Cruz has turned its back on its waterway. Inside city limits the San Lorenzo River, once a place where families cooled off in modest bathing costumes and gondolas plied the waters during the annual Venetian Water Carnival, now shelters homeless camps and sketchy hobbies.

People have talked about saving the river before—about the need to embrace it instead of turning our backs on it—but efforts have foundered on lack of will or funding. Now, with fresh community scrutiny of public safety issues around the river and ever-increasing environmental awareness, the idea has a new champion in the Coastal Watershed Council. What's more, city leaders like Mayor Hilary Bryant and councilmembers Don Lane and Micah Posner appear supportive, as do several city department heads. With lots of logistical help from the Santa Cruz Water Department and other city service providers, the effort's first act of river reclamation, the San Lorenzo River Paddle held on Saturday, Oct. 12, was a resounding success.

"We expected a little hesitation, just because of some people's ideas about the San Lorenzo," says Stewardship Coordinator Laurie Egan, "but we expected people to be excited to get out there. And we were able to show people how beautiful it is."

A Water Quality Snapshot
The Outdoor Poet: David Sullivan ("At The Mouth of The San Lorenzo")
2013 Coastal Cleanup Day Results

About 50 people signed up within a week of the paddle's announcement to float or paddle the river—activities that, along with swimming, are currently prohibited under city ordinance. Mayor Bryant, CWC Executive Director Greg Pepping and Chris Berry of the Santa Cruz Water Department all spoke before launch. Setting off from a spot behind the County building near the Water Street Bridge on kayaks, canoes and SUP boards, event participants explored the reeds and banks of the San Lorenzo for three hours, paddling down to the Boardwalk and back, spying wildlife, waving to people walking and biking the levees and generally seeing town from a different vantage point.

One day this might become an activity that Santa Cruzans do all the time—though, as Egan says, "Unfortunately we have to change city ordinance before they can come back." Fortunately that is on the agenda for CWC as it launches its new campaign to reclaim the San Lorenzo River. If city officials remain as receptive as they seem to be now, we could all be kayaking our brains out before long.

"It's such a huge community resource that we're looking to focus our efforts on cleaning it up," says Egan. "We're looking particularly to reduce bacteria in the San Lorenzo but also open it up to recreation and things that will help spur economic development in Santa Cruz. There are so many towns, for instance Napa and San Luis Obispo, that have rivers that are the pride and joy of their town, and we want to do the same thing for Santa Cruz."

Makes perfect sense for the organization famous for its First Flush and Snapshot Day water quality monitoring efforts. The CWC will do monthly water quality monitoring along the river and continue working to bring people down to the San Lorenzo to discover its wildlife and its rangy beauty. In December, the CWC and the Santa Cruz Bird Club will co-host a bird walk on the San Lorenzo River, starting downtown and making their way up toward the Tannery Building. Winter birding on the San Lorenzo River brings common mergansers, wintering geese and the usual herons and egrets, among whatever surprises Nature has in store.

Interested in learning more? Visit the Coastal Watershed Council's San Lorenzo River page to see how you can get involved.