First River Forum Divided Over Paddling

The first of three San Lorenzo River Community Forums revealed differences in opinion over the value of recreational paddling on the river.

by Traci Hukill

March 7, 2014—The outlines of a debate over the future of the San Lorenzo River began to take shape at Wednesday night's community river forum, with part of the crowd expressing support for habitat improvement first and foremost and others emphasizing greater human engagement with the river through recreation and commerce. Differences were most obvious on the subject of recreational paddling on the lower river, an activity viewed by some as disruptive to wildlife and by others as a way for the community to re-engage with a long-neglected waterway.

Smatterings of applause rippled through the room of 100 or so participants at the Museum of Art and History when Greg Pepping, executive director of the Coastal Watershed Council and de facto leader of the newly formed San Lorenzo River Alliance, read aloud from a list of suggestions for the river such statements as "no boats on river" and "I want better habitat above all else."

"We need more data," said one woman during a discussion of recreational paddling. "Sensitive species like mergansers may have more reaction [to paddlers on the river]. I recommend having a science group look at the impacts and report back."

How heavily the river would be used for paddling is unclear. Any paddling permissions for the river would apply only to nonmotorized watercraft like SUP and kayaks; motorboats would be strictly prohibited. And unlike during pilot paddle events in October and February, the river would not likely see flotillas of 25 or 50 paddlers entering the river at once.

"There's room for everything," said one audience member, adding in what seemed like a plaintive tone, "There's definitely room for dogs."

Another audience member suggested limiting paddling or boating to times when it wouldn't harm wildlife (high tides and non-breeding seasons come to mind). "Is it possible to have a situation where we say, 'You can use the river for recreation on this day, and on this other day you can't?'" he asked.

Pilot paddling days on the river appear to have hit a snafu. In November, following the first paddle day on the San Lorenzo River, the Santa Cruz City Council directed city staff to reevaluate an ordinance passed in the 1980s banning recreational access on the river. Staff is in the middle of that process. CWC and the SLRA hosted a paddle day in February designed in part to help city staff with the evaluation exercise; another was planned for March 15.

But Pepping said Wednesday that the one-day permit from the city had been revoked. "The permit has been cancelled because the state is not sure it's a good idea for fish migration," he said.

As at the SLRA's inaugural forum, support in the room Wednesday for recreational access was high. In a count of post-it notes marked with ideas and affixed to posters around the room depicting three zones of the river—Riverine Reach (Highway 1 bridge to Water Street bridge), Transition Reach (Water Street Bridge to Laurel Street Bridge) and Estuarine Reach (Laurel Street Bridge to the rivermouth)—"Boat/SUP launch" got 17 post-its, the second-most after "Cafe/Restaurants." "Open recreational access" got an additional 15 votes, "swimming" got 6 and "SUP/Kayak Rental and Lessons" got 4, for a grand total of 42 water recreation-themed votes.

Food also ranked high, with 31 votes for "Cafe/Restaurants," 9 votes for "Food Trucks/Carts," and 6 votes for "Beer Garden/Bar": 46 votes total.

And so did habitat protection. "Better Habitat (General)" got 12 votes, "More Native Plants" got 9, "Convert Boardwalk parking lot into park/estuary" got 5, "Better Habitat (fish)" got 4, and a handful of suggestions from "lines of trees" to "Better Habitat (birds) to "more native" got 2 and 3 votes each.

Read Food and Fun Rank High Among River Supporters
Read Meet The San Lorenzo River Alliance

In a paper survey handed out to each attendee, though, the leading answer to the question "What topic is of greatest interest to you?" was clearly "Fish and Wildlife Habitat," with 23% of the votes. "Community Engagement — Arts, Education, Cleanups, River Events" came in with 20%, and "Water Quality" was at 18%. "Recreational Access and Transportation" was next with 13%.

A Creative Endeavor
The following are some of our favorite moments and ideas from the forum, whether because of their wackiness, their brilliance or their classic Santa Cruziness.

Angie Gruys of the Resource Conservation District
"Does anybody remember the Spring Fair?" (This refers to a music festival held in San Lorenzo Park during the 1970s and 1980s.)

From suggestions for the river as read aloud by Greg Pepping:
"Coffee stand"
"A statue of a goddess"
"Rooftop cafe on India Joze with a bridge to the river" (drew applause)
"Venetian Water Carnival" (3 votes)
"River Festival" (5 votes)
"Fish hatchery"
"Public art"
"Off-leash dog area" (1 vote)
"No off-leash dog area" (1 vote)
"Engage architects and urban planners"
"Get rid of the levees"

The next San Lorenzo River Community Forum is in Ben Lomond on March 24. The third and final forum is May 12 at the Santa Cruz Patagonia Outlet.