Greg Pepping of the Coastal Watershed Council explains how the new attention being paid to the San Lorenzo River could transform Santa Cruz
Part of the largest watershed in the county, the San Lorenzo River provides drinking water to more than 93,000 residents. Draining from the Santa Cruz Mountains, it runs right through downtown—which is built on the river floodplains. But although the river is extremely important to our livelihood, most of downtown faces away from it, and, until recently, it’s been treated more like a dirty, unsafe back alley than an important waterway and public space.
Greg Pepping, Executive Director of the Coastal Watershed Council, has been an instrumental force in spearheading the San Lorenzo River Alliance, which formed in December of 2013. Over the past two years, the powerful alliance of 10 organizations has made significant steps toward their goal of transforming the river into a healthy watershed, embraced and enjoyed by all. In 2014 alone, the alliance held 77 events along the more than two-mile stretch of riverwalk downtown. If their efforts continue, Santa Cruz could be well on its way to becoming a “river town.”
What was the impetus for starting the San Lorenzo River Alliance?
GREG PEPPING: Well, a lot of people have worked hard on this river, and the city and county have staff that work hard on it every day. So, if it wasn’t for all the past efforts we’d have a totally concrete structure like the L.A. river has in downtown L.A. A lot’s been done, but since 2009, there had been no river committee, and there had been no opportunity for the community to participate. It’s not just the job of the city staff, county staff, or some large project, it’s an opportunity for the entire community to invest in this river, so when we formed the Alliance, that was one of the main goals, to really reconnect the community to the watershed. So, it takes those big projects and a bunch of individual actions by thousands of people, that’s what we’re trying to foster.
Would you say that changing local mentality around the river—from one of back alley to front yard—is a crucial step?
It’s a huge part of, you know, “what’s our story with the river?” Spanish explorers first saw that river in 1769, and they found Ohlone native people there, and that’s why the community is here, because of the river—and we used to feel connection to the river. The levies are doing their job of keeping us safe from the flood waters, but visually we’re cut off, it’s kind of “out of sight, out of mind,” and emotionally we don’t have the connection to the river that prior generations had. Psychologically, we don’t know what the water does for us, you know, as a drinking water source, and it affects our economic vitality and quality of life. So it could be our front yard, but many feel like it’s a back alley. And many people see it as an irrigation ditch, and it could be a great urban park.
What are some of the problems that the river has faced in the past?
The conventional wisdom is sort of that the faulty septic systems up in the valley are the problem, and the county’s done a really good job of addressing that. There’s more work to be done on the septic, we have some leaky sewer laterals here in town, we have illegal camping, and all those add up to a bacteria problem in the river. But I would say that the river is cleaner than its reputation. We’re really focused on bacteria, and we’ve learned that the birds are a big source. But we want to eliminate human sources of bacteria, and that’s back to the sewers and the septic and illegal camping, so that’s something that’s a priority for us. Water quality’s got to be No. 1. People won’t be drawn to the river if they think it’s yucky. And that’s one of our strengths as an organization since we started in ’95, we’ve been very science based and focused on water quality.
You mentioned seeing two coyotes last week near the Water Street bridge. In terms of wildlife, what else lives there now and how might you see restoration affecting it?
There are lots of birds along the river, there are steelhead, and hopefully there are coho salmon again one day, there are tidewater gobies and lots of other fish—and this is where people can play a role. We need habitat restoration projects throughout the watershed, and what people do on their individual properties matters, so we’re trying to get people to realize that they are part of it, in water conservation, how you manage your property and land and runoff, all of that affects the river. And we all kind of know that, but we can put more attention on that.
One of the main criticisms of the layout of downtown Santa Cruz is its lack of public space. How might the riverwalk be a viable solution?
You asked about the riverwalk usage study [a year-long and ongoing study that analysed who uses the river and for what]. We weren’t terribly surprised by the results [which found that the most common river-goers were between the ages of 20-40, biking or walking], but we thought there would be a bit more diversity. In the future we hope to make the parks around the river more inviting to kids, and so we’ve had more kid events recently. We partnered with Louden Nelson and had a walk and talk along the river with seniors, and we still need to have more events to get moms down there. So that’s one thing we’re working on. I was surprised by the fact that there weren’t a lot of women down at the river. Upon reflecting, I shouldn’t be surprised, perhaps. I really want to think about how we can make a space that is safe and inviting for the community. We want it to be a place that reflects the diversity of Santa Cruz.
How do you think the river could be used to stimulate our economy?
Last year we had a series of river forums, and one of the top ideas for the lower river was cafes and restaurants along the river, places to eat and drink. And, so the community wants that, and I think that’s going to be a logical extension of downtown. There’s a project in development stages along Front Street that may actually reach out to the riverwalk path, so you could be on the levy path, and with one step be on the patio and order a coffee, or an ice cream, with a view of the river.
As far as construction, what is in the works right now?
There’s lighting, and the city manager’s office has ensured that the lighting is aesthetically and stylistically consistent with the lighting on the bridges. It’s kind of a classic look, and I think they’re really attractive. So that will improve safety, and the feel of safety. I know that there is careful attention paid to where the light diffuses to, and ideally the light illuminates the path, but doesn’t bleed out into the river and affect wildlife. It’s basically a collar that they put around the lights so it shines down. It’s very low-tech but it’s very important. There will be a lighting ceremony coming up.
Then there’s exercise equipment that’s already been installed but hasn’t really been unveiled. It’s a little circuit that you can do, and some of those pieces are ready for use [downstream from the Laurel Street bridge, near the Kaiser Permanente Arena]. And then some signage and maybe some seating are the other elements. And all of that’s work of the city securing a grant from the state.
How long do you think it might take for Santa Cruz to also be known as a river town?
I think that some of the ground can be broken within a couple of years for the development along the river. The smaller projects are ongoing right now, where people are out there removing invasive weeds, and giving native species a chance to thrive. People are doing citizen science projects where they’re figuring out where the water’s dirty and where it’s clean and where are the sources of pollution, so, it’s going to take longer than I wish, but we’re taking baby steps right now. And then, we need to get toward a capital campaign, where we recognize the really big picture investment that we can do as a community, and then how do we fund that stuff? Those are some of the more challenging next steps for the coalition.
The California voters passed the water bond last November, and that money will be rolled out over the next 6-8 years, how much of that could be invested in the San Lorenzo watershed, private foundations, federal grants, some private investment. And if you pull all of those things together, you can really change this river, in a way that we decide what that improvement is.
How can people join in and is anyone welcome to do so?
They are welcomed, and asked, to get involved. We want people to realize that there’s an opportunity for everyone, no matter what your inclination or interest, there’s a role that you can play, and the best way you can find out is to go to sanlorenzoriver.org, or the San Lorenzo River Facebook page.