Meet The San Lorenzo River Alliance

Read on if you like San Lorenzo River, Coastal Watershed Council, San Lorenzo River Alliance

by Traci Hukill

Jan. 8, 2014—From the time Cliff Hodges was 3 years old, he and his family would walk downtown from the Westside each weekend for scones and coffee at Kelly's. Theirs was clearly a family ready for fresh air and fun, but there's one place they never went: the San Lorenzo River.

"We’d walk up Pacific and all over downtown and avoid the river like the plague," recalls Hodges. "It wasn't a bad experience. It was a lack of experience. We avoided it."

College in Boston, where the Charles River flows through the city flanked by walkways, running paths, live music venues and put-ins for sailboats and rowers, made him think differently about the river in his hometown. Last month Hodges, founder of the outdoor guide company Adventure Out, directed the majority of his One Percent for The Planet year-end donation to the Coastal Watershed Council. Hodges has allocated smaller amounts to the CWC in years past, but this year he went big time with the group he describes as "a functional organization doing real, tangible work."

"The reason we pledged even more than in past years is they have taken on the San Lorenzo River as kind of their hallmark project at this point. As someone who’s been a Santa Cruz native most of my life and seen that river and river levee mostly be a place to avoid—to see a major organization like CWC take it on is a great thing."

Though it may have been neglected when Hodges was a child, the San Lorenzo River lately seems abused. Homeless encampments, crime, litter and water quality have worsened in spite of bike trails, patrols and other attempts to improve its lot. In its November 2013 recommendations, the Public Safety Citizen Task Force listed "environmental design" and "reactivation" of the San Lorenzo River among a scant handful of high priority initiatives.

Even before that report was made public, the Coastal Watershed Council was leading the charge to reclaim the San Lorenzo. And a new alliance, announced yesterday, is putting fresh energy behind the effort.

Building A San Lorenzo River Alliance

In October, as the task force was drawing up its recommendations, the Coastal Watershed Council, best known for its First Flush and Snapshot Day tests of local water quality, kicked off its river revitalization campaign with a sold-out San Lorenzo River paddle that had city officials and water enthusiasts plying the river on kayaks and SUPs. Widely hailed a success, the paddle day led to the Santa Cruz City Council in November directing staff to explore permanently lifting the prohibition on floating or paddling in the river.

Read about the San Lorenzo Paddle Day
Read about the Coastal Watershed Council's 2013 Snapshot Day results

The movement is now gathering steam in earnest. On Jan. 7, before a group of 60 environmental leaders, current and former officials and other thought leaders gathered at Hotel Paradox, CWC Executive Director Greg Pepping announced the formation of the San Lorenzo River Alliance, a coalition organized around the vision of "a thriving Santa Cruz riverfront." Charter members consist of heavy hitters: Coastal Watershed Council, the City of Santa Cruz, the County of Santa Cruz, the Museum of Natural History, the San Lorenzo Valley Women's Club and the Resource Conservation District of Santa Cruz County.

Pepping explained that the immediate plan is to re-engage with the 2003 San Lorenzo Urban River Plan, now halfway through its 20-year lifespan. Regular meetings about the river will resume under the SLRA River Oversight Committee (the last Urban River Committee meeting was in December 2009), and working groups will take on topics such as recreational access, economic development, water quality and fish and wildlife habitat.

Former mayor Bruce Van Allen, who led the effort to create the 2003 river plan, praised the revitalized movement, reminding the crowd that the river presents the opportunity for "five miles of city park" on its banks, but he warned people to be patient. "You know that sweet little [bicycle and pedestrian] bridge at Felker? It was first proposed in a meeting in 1985. It was built four years ago."

The crowd—a Who's Whosapalooza that included Mayor Lynn Robinson, four former Santa Cruz mayors, water officials, City Manager Martin Bernal, reps from county supervisors and leaders from Save Our Shores, Sierra Club, Land Trust of Santa Cruz County and O'Neill Sea Odyssey —used pink sticky notes to post suggestions on maps showing sections of the river. Bars. Kayak ramps. Birding platforms. Food trucks. People let it rip.

"Can we have a riverway teeming with activities like kayaking, birding, maybe even dining and music," Pepping asked the crowd, "and you wanting to take [visitors] to that riverway and show it off?

"I refuse to believe we don't have the resources here. We have public leaders here. We have creative people."

A New River Movement

"People completely love this idea," says Pepping, speaking by phone. "Every conversation offers validation. There's so much excitement and encouragement."

CWC has raised $100,000 since launching the campaign—well on the way to the half-million that Pepping says is the goal. That will allow the CWC conduct outreach, hire staff for project management and event coordination and support the SLRA with updating the 2003 river plan and developing a business plan and funding strategy. In its turn, the SLRA will be applying for state and federal grants.

Though Pepping's work at CWC focuses on the environment, he is very clear that one reason the campaign is meeting with success is timing with regard to other concerns, from crime to drought. He ticks them off: "The Public Safety Task Force has a number of recommendations relating to the river. Ninety-five thousand city water customers are drinking from that river as a major source. Local leaders are worried about good jobs and economic development in general. Look at Front Street—that could be developed in a way that faces the river."

The river campaign is a new direction for CWC, best known for sending citizen scientists into the field armed with test tubes to monitor stream and river water quality during the season's first rain ("First Flush") and in early May ("Snapshot Day"). Pepping, a business major-turned-Peace Corps sanitation volunteer (he later got a master's in water chemistry) who took the organization's helm in September 2009, says the river project is the result of a strategic planning process he likens to "organizational soul-searching."

"You could tell yourself, 'Keep at it, keep the faith,' or you could decide to change some things. This is a big idea, and we’re humble about what one environmental nonprofit can do. But I’m not humble about, if we change that river—and it’s not easy, or it would be done—if we change it, that would transform Santa Cruz. Imagine you and your husband are talking about a visitor: 'Should we take 'em to Westcliff or along the river?' We don’t have that now, but we could."

The SLRA wants community help. To volunteer with water quality monitoring, river cleanups and other events, or to donate to the SLRA, email