Revitalizing a River, Strengthening a Community

July 14, 2016

People visit Santa Cruz from all over the country to sunbathe on our beautiful beaches and explore our towering redwood forests. People don’t come here, however, for the San Lorenzo River.

I walk my dog along the levee several days a week as a welcome break from my laptop and the confines of the indoors. I enjoy keeping an eye out for the waterfowl that ride the slow current and for the great blue herons and cattle egrets that hunt along the water’s edge. 

In the spring the banks come alive with color - thick carpets of yellow sour grass, bright orange poppies, and purple and pink blooms I don’t know the names of. Sunlight glitters on the water in the late afternoon sun and the Santa Cruz Mountains provide the landscape with a verdant background to the north, and if you walk far enough, the Pacific Ocean’s sparkling blue waters mark the horizon to the south.

In February, the San Lorenzo's banks are carpeted in bright yellow sour grass.

In February, the San Lorenzo's banks are carpeted in bright yellow sour grass.

The San Lorenzo winds through the Santa Cruz Mountains and through downtown until it joins the ocean under the Lost Boys Bridge at the Boardwalk.

The San Lorenzo winds through the Santa Cruz Mountains and through downtown until it joins the ocean under the Lost Boys Bridge at the Boardwalk.

The river is beautiful to me, even with the litter and occasional dirty blanket or sleeping bag abandoned on the dry banks. I pass weathered men and women with missing teeth and unsteady gazes sitting hunched along the pathway, muttering to themselves or pontificating loudly on the meaning of life to anyone who will listen. Groups of young vagabonds sit camped out, halfway in the path, their dogs curled up in the dirt alongside all their belongings.

My walks are usually uneventful but I’ve had moments of unease and encounters that have left me shaken. I’ve seen a fight break out at night when riding my bike that forced me off the levee and onto the street, in fear that I would otherwise return home with a black eye or worse. 

These experiences made me feel excluded from a space that should be one the entire community can safely enjoy. It is getting better - the installation of lights along the levee has improved safety after dark and art installations at the river have encouraged more community members to explore their city’s main watershed - but it’s still not a place that families spend time at on the weekends or a place that downtown professionals choose to eat their lunch.

The San Lorenzo’s Glory Days

It didn’t used to be this way. From 1895 to 1927, the city held an annual river festival called the Venetian Water Carnival, featuring elaborate floats, a carnival queen, mock battles, and fireworks. Fishermen once cast their lines for coho salmon and steelhead trout in the river, families would picnic along the San Lorenzo’s sandy banks, and boys and girls would take a refreshing dip in the cool waters. Tourists would pay to rent paddle boats and row boats to fish and just experience Santa Cruz from the town’s main watershed.

The Coastal Watershed Council (CWC) is trying to revitalize the San Lorenzo River and transform the levee once again into an inviting space for everyone to enjoy. A place that is safe to walk at anytime of day and one that draws people out of their offices at lunch for a walk along its banks or a sandwich down on the sand. Other cities, like Boston and Denver, have revitalized their rivers and returned them to places of refuge and community, so there’s no reason Santa Cruz can’t do the same.

A Night to Meander

As part of this revitalization process, the CWC held its second annual event, Meander, on the grass along the river just below the underutilized San Lorenzo Park. 200 community members attended, dressed in their finest outdoor dining attire, for an unseasonably warm evening of delicious food and drink, live bluegrass, and inspirational speeches from CWC staff and supporters.

I’ve attended many Santa Cruz events and this was by far one of the most beautifully orchestrated that I’ve experienced. As we entered beneath the bridge, a friendly face offered us KraftBar whiskey sours made with Venus Spirits, a welcome beverage on such a hot June day. Tables were set up around the perimeter with hor d'oeuvres from local vendors and giant yellow periscopes popped up from a cluster of haystacks. Chatty guests lined up for refreshing cocktails at the Kraft Bar’s airstream turned mobile bar.

The mood was celebratory and there was a sense of camaraderie amongst the attendees - we were all there for a reason. We wanted to see the San Lorenzo River restored to a place of beauty and refuge for people and wildlife alike, and as the source of our drinking water, respected for the huge role it plays in all our lives as Santa Cruz residents. All of us felt a connection to this waterway, whether we walked our dogs along the levee or envisioned kayaking swiftly along the river's current, from the mountains to the waters of the Pacific.


The San Lorenzo rushes through the Santa Cruz mountains, forming small rapids that feed into idyllic swimming holes. Photo courtesy of Eric Ressler.

The San Lorenzo rushes through the Santa Cruz mountains, forming small rapids that feed into idyllic swimming holes. Photo courtesy of Eric Ressler.

After a multi-course meal prepared by the Glass Jar featuring the most delicious salmon I’ve ever tasted (perhaps in the near future it will be fresh caught from the San Lorenzo!), I left the event with a newfound sense of hope for our river and a determination to do my part to restore it.

I plan to help remove nonnative species along the river’s banks and take part in a water monitoring event, but the CWC offers volunteer opportunities to fit everyone’s interests and abilities. 

At the very least, take a walk along the river and take the time to appreciate the beautiful water source we are so fortunate to have meandering through our city. Perhaps someday, when friends visit you in Santa Cruz you’ll say, “You can’t miss the San Lorenzo Riverwalk. It’s a thriving natural habitat and community hub and one of the most beautiful places in our city.”

Photo courtesy of Eric Ressler.

Photo courtesy of Eric Ressler.

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