San Lorenzo River Santa Cruz
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Studying the San Lorenzo River and Keeping Pollutants Out

Visitors to San Lorenzo are down, but recreational use of the river path is on the upswing

PHOTO: COURTESY OF CRYSTAL BIRNS PHOTOGRAPHY

As fans of both the San Lorenzo River and the Santa Cruz art scene prepare for Ebb and Flow’s June kickoff (see cover story), the Coastal Watershed Council is wasting no time looking into whether or not efforts to get more people to enjoy the river are actually working.

The council released the data in May with its annual Riverwalk Usage Study report. Since 2014, council volunteers have observed and tracked the activities of thousands of riverwalk visitors as they bike, stroll, skateboard, and run along the city’s longest park.

“There are fewer people using the riverwalk,” says Alev Bilginsoy, Coastal Watershed Council river scientist, adding that they’ve noticed a 20 percent decrease in visitors between summers in 2015 and 2016. Bilginsoy adds that the decrease may be loosely linked to more sunny days in 2015.

“The study began in a drought year,” says Bilginsoy. “That means consistently better weather, which invites more people outdoors.” And although there was a decrease in biking and walking from 2015 to 2016, that doesn’t show the whole picture.

Leisurely activities like dog walking, running, and skateboarding all increased along the river levee paths over that year. The watershed council reported a 26 percent increase in the number of visitors who choose to relax in the park since the study began in 2014. So while fewer folks appear to be visiting the riverwalk, those who do seem to spend more time hanging out.

June was the busiest time for the riverwalk last year—perhaps an indicator that it’s a great time for a public art event like Ebb and Flow. Or maybe it’s a sign that the celebration is working. Volunteers counted 98 percent of people engaged in “positive activities”—a slight increase from previous years—and only 2 percent engaged in negative ones like camping, drinking and drug use.

And on the note of positivity, the Coastal Watershed Council launched a campaign on Wednesday, May 24 to try and reduce the amount of contaminants that run into the river. Greg Pepping, the nonprofit’s executive director, is asking people to pick up after their pet waste immediately, even in their own backyards, and keep their gutters dry of harmful contaminants.

He also suggests people get their sewer connectors checked, because any outflow failure on the line runs off into the river, and the city has announced an ordinance to require homeowners to do it when they buy or sell a house.

“There’s not a treatment plant for runoff,” Pepping says. 

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