A River Runs Through It

Balancing access and conservation in an urban environment

By Leonie Sherman

Permitted paddlers access the San Lorenzo River for the first time at an event hosted by the City of Santa Cruz and Coastal Watershed Council (Laurie Egan/CWC).

Permitted paddlers access the San Lorenzo River for the first time at an event hosted by the City of Santa Cruz and Coastal Watershed Council (Laurie Egan/CWC).

It can take years to get a stop sign installed in Santa Cruz. So nobody is surprised that the process of opening the San Lorenzo River to recreational boat use is a slow one. The section of river under debate is just over a mile long and can be paddled in about half an hour, but residents are resigned to a lengthy political slog before anyone can put in their kayak beneath the Soquel Avenue bridge.

The trendy boutiques and microbreweries of downtown Pacific Avenue were once an alluvial floodplain. After a huge flood in 1955, the Army Corps of Engineers constructed levees along the banks of the San Lorenzo River, confining it to a concrete channel. This engineering feat created a stable riparian zone that hosts over a hundred species of birds. 90,000 people rely on it for drinking water.

In the twenty-odd miles between its headwaters in Castle Rock State Park and the city’s northern boundary, anyone can jump in the San Lorenzo and play. The upper reaches are wild and churning and scenic and open for exploration. In the last few miles, however, where a placid river meanders through the heart of the city to the Monterey Bay, recreational use is prohibited. City officials want to change that. They have plans to integrate the riverfront into future downtown development and to encourage kayakers and paddleboarders to use the section of the river between downtown and the seasonal lagoon at the edge of the Boardwalk.

Pilot Program

“We’re trying to reconnect a healthy watershed to a vibrant community,” says Greg Pepping, Executive Director of the local non-profit Coastal Watershed Council (CWC). “One way we can do that is by paddling on the river.” Pepping worked closely with the city staff and Council to launch a pilot project in October 2013 to allow up to fifty people at a time to kayak, canoe and stand up paddle on the river.

Twenty years ago, I kayaked the San Lorenzo from Felton to the ocean. The upper section featured class III rapids and a deep gorge; five hours passed in a blur of adrenaline and shivering. The lower section was immense and calm. Herons and snowy egrets stood sentinel on the banks. Homeless people waved from camp sites along the edges. I hardly recognized my hometown from such an altered perspective. The stillness stayed with me for days.

So I happily joined the pilot paddling project in August of 2014. The company was fun and lively, and many didn’t notice when our chatter flushed a green heron from its perch. The bird fled, escaping downstream from the steadily approaching humans. Close to the river mouth, where cover is scarce, a hawk swooped out of the sky and grabbed the heron in mid-air. Good day for one kind of bird, bad day for the other.

The intense reaction of local birders – along with some troublesome mats of algae – encouraged the city to cancel the final day of the pilot program. Few people had thought through how paddling activity might affect wildlife, or how to mitigate the impacts. “People don’t notice the birds unless they’re really looking for them,” explains long time river lover Barbara Childs. “But this river, from the highway to the ocean, is the fifteenth most bio-diverse birding spot in the county. Boating here would be an incredibly disruptive activity, at least for the birds.”

The City Council commissioned a baseline biological study for the summer of 2015 to determine which birds were present, followed up in 2016 with a study of wildlife during paddling events. “I felt the need to tread cautiously and to have a clear understanding of the implications before making a decision on opening up the San Lorenzo to paddling,” said council member Richelle Noroyan. The council agreed to pay for the first year’s study; Pepping and CWC agreed to raise the money for the following year’s efforts.

“It’s a balancing act,” admits Pepping. “This river is habitat, but it’s also a flood control project, and the longest city park in Santa Cruz.” He figures opening the river to recreational use will benefit the whole town, not just paddling enthusiasts. Pepping and city staff hope that increased use of the river will reduce the social problems associated with persistent illegal riverfront camping. “Paddling isn’t going to solve all that,” Pepping admits, “but it’s part of the solution.”

Despite conflicting views on how to use the San Lorenzo River, everyone agrees that this rich natural habitat running through our town is a biological and cultural asset worth celebrating. Both sides see the value of interacting respectfully with the non-human world. “People are hungry for nature,” says Childs. “We need to preserve and protect that in urban areas.”

Coastal Commission

The final decision about what kind of activity is permitted on the lower San Lorenzo won’t be made by city officials, birders or advocates. The California Coastal Commission (CCC), a state-wide regulatory body,  retains jurisdiction over the part of river subject to tidal influence, which is the entire section of river in question. “The city doesn’t have the authority to issue permits in that part of the river,” explains CCC Central Coast District Manager Susan Craig. “Any plan that involves a ‘change in the intensity of use of the water or of access thereto’ falls under our jurisdiction and will have to meet Coastal Act standards.”

While the Coastal Act encourages public access to coastal resources, including recreational use, it also aims to preserve those resources – their beauty and their biodiversity – for future generations. “Before issuing a permit for that kind of activity, we’d want to know how many boats would be allowed each day, what type of craft, what kind of monitoring there will be for fish and wildlife impacts,” said Craig, “and of course how the city would manage and regulate all that.”

Can we enjoy and protect the natural world at the same time? Can we allow recreational use of the San Lorenzo without negatively impacting the wildlife who live there? Well, not this year, anyways. “We are going to delay implementation at least until summer or early fall of 2017,” explains City Manager Martin Bernal. “We want to make sure we do this right.”

A paddler proudly displays the trash she cleaned from the river (David Casterson).

A paddler proudly displays the trash she cleaned from the river (David Casterson).

Permitted paddlers access the San Lorenzo River for the first time at an event hosted by the City of Santa Cruz and Coastal Watershed Council (Laurie Egan/CWC).

Permitted paddlers access the San Lorenzo River for the first time at an event hosted by the City of Santa Cruz and Coastal Watershed Council (Laurie Egan/CWC).

CWC Executive Director Greg Pepping paddles the San Lorenzo River (Melissa Foley).

CWC Executive Director Greg Pepping paddles the San Lorenzo River (Melissa Foley).

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