Rallying for the River

New alliance takes aim at making over the San Lorenzo River

Could the San Lorenzo River become a draw to Downtown Santa Cruz, offering opportunities for recreation, picnicking, and more? A quick look at the riverfront in its current condition certainly doesn’t inspire much confidence. In recent years, the San Lorenzo River has become a sore spot in the Santa Cruz community with a reputation for being dirty and crime-ridden. But a coalition of local community and environmental leaders and organizations wants to change that perception and remake the area into a riverfront we can all enjoy and be proud of.

It isn’t going to be an easy task, however.

Santa Cruz Police Department statistics show a high concentration of criminal activity along the river, and many of the recommendations of the 2013 Public Safety Citizen Task Force focus on improving the river way. On a recent Saturday afternoon, a tour of the river saw illegal campsites and garbage throughout the levee, though a handful of bicyclists and bird-watchers were also present.

Additionally, the river is currently on the state’s impaired waters list due to its levels of nutrients, pathogens and sediment, and it doesn’t currently meet federal and state water quality objectives. Despite this, it’s the primary source of water for the City of Santa Cruz and water supply levels remain a continued concern. Although the water quality needs to be improved, some, such as Greg Pepping, executive director of the Coastal Watershed Council, believe concerns may be inflated.

“I think it’s cleaner than people think,” he says.

Pepping and the Coastal Watershed Council are leading the charge to revitalize the river. In the fall, the organization kicked off the campaign to revamp the river with a sold-out San Lorenzo River paddle that brought dozens of people, including then-Mayor Hilary Bryant, out on kayaks and stand-up paddleboards. That event, hailed as a success by the council, helped encourage city councilmembers to look into lifting the prohibition on floating and paddling in the river.

On Tuesday, Jan. 7, the Coastal Watershed Council and Pepping officially announced the formation of the San Lorenzo River Alliance. The coalition will focus on creating a thriving Santa Cruz riverfront, and its members include the City of Santa Cruz, the county, the Museum of Natural History, and dozens of other community and environmental leaders.

“We are shaping the fate of the rivers,” says former mayor Bruce Van Allen. “We need to revitalize the river.”

Van Allen, a longtime Santa Cruz resident and community activist, has earned a reputation as being “the river guy” when it comes to his boosterism for the San Lorenzo River. He imagines the levee becoming an urban park that’s “beautiful from every way you approach it.”

This is hardly a new idea. In 2003, the city council adopted the San Lorenzo Urban River Plan, itself an update to the San Lorenzo River Design Concept Plan of 1987 and the San Lorenzo River Enhancement Plan of 1989. The urban river plan provided a 20-year comprehensive plan for the areas of the river, Branciforte Creek and Jessie Street marsh within city limits. It included recommendations for increasing public access and recreation opportunities, flood control and vegetation restoration, among others. The San Lorenzo River Alliance plans to re-engage with those plans, which—halfway through—have seen little come to fruition.

Supporters, however, feel that can—and should—change.

“I refuse to believe we don’t have the resources to have that here,” says Pepping.

Pepping points to successful waterfront revitalization efforts in cities such as Austin, Texas, Boulder, Colo., and, closer by, Paso Robles. The Salinas River is a central feature of Paso Robles, but access has long been severely limited due to an assortment of physical barriers and private development. With support from the National Park Service’s Rivers, Trails and Conservation Assistance Program, community leaders there have worked tirelessly to improve that city’s riverfront.  The advocacy group founded to work on it has managed to purchase 150 acres of land dedicated to improved public access, restored five acres of river corridor, constructed a 1.5-mile parkway trail and installed bilingual interpretive signs along the trail, according to Paso Robles city officials.

Members of the San Lorenzo River Alliance see such successes as proof that similar efforts can become a reality here, as well.

The 2013 Public Safety Citizen Task Force outlined a number of recommendations for improving the area in its report. Many of those recommendations included increasing and improving lighting, a goal already being undertaken by the city’s Public Works Department. Lighting was upgraded with energy efficient LED lights in the parking lots near the Kaiser Permanente Arena, the San Lorenzo Benchland Park and along the pedestrian bridge over the San Lorenzo River. City staff have also walked with volunteers who clean up the levee regularly to explore the existing conditions there, according to city officials, and have been meeting with property owners in the area to discuss collaborative efforts that could be taken.

Pepping and others within the alliance believe the biggest step will be to get people actually using and enjoying the area. He believes the city council’s unanimous support for exploring lifting the current no-paddling policy is a great step forward.

“Use dissuades disuse,” says Pepping.

The big push to promote the river’s revitalization will include holding more outreach events for the public. This past weekend, local organizations held a series of talks and events focused on the story of the river, both past and present. Randall Brown, a local historian, and Fred McPherson, who organized the 1970s citizen group Save the San Lorenzo, spoke about human impact on the river and citizen action to restore it. The county’s water resources director, John Ricker, also spoke, joined by watershed expert Brock Dolman, the founder of the Occidental-based Watershed Advocacy, Training, Education and Research Institute.

Longtime fisheries biologist Don Alley, who has been taking samples from the rivers for the past three decades, also led a walking tour of the river focused on its steelhead and coho salmon populations. He says he’s seen the fisheries’ quality continually decline and has been disappointed by how comparatively little effort has been made to enhance them.

“You saw a lot of positive stuff at the talks but the bottom line is these fish haven’t shown any improvement since I’ve been studying them,” says Alley, referring to the weekend’s events.

Steelhead is a threatened species while coho is on the endangered species list.

Alley, who led a group of about 30 around the levee on Saturday, Jan. 11, says he is encouraged by this latest effort to improve the river, however, and believes there is now “a group of people who actually seem to care about the fish.”  He wants to see aspects of the federal recovery plan for the fish species incorporated in the river management plan.

He hopes that if residents begin using the riverfront more often, that will help foster a stronger connection to the natural resource and encourage a renewed interest in fishery enhancement.

Regular meetings about the river will resume after a four-year hiatus, and working groups will be formed around topics such as water quality, recreational access and wildlife habitat. Though those meetings haven’t been scheduled yet, Pepping says he hopes to start them in February. The meetings will provide an opportunity for residents to share their ideas, be reminded of the urban river plan and the progress that’s already been made, and encourage more of an invested interest, he says.  

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