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Lunch Break: Hardworking Josh stops to smell the willows along the San Lorenzo River; see 'Horse Power.'


River Notes

River watchers will have noticed that the San Lorenzo River Estuary is plugged with a sandbar these days (a not-uncommon occurrence in summer, when extremely high and low tides dump tons of sands in the river mouth) and a lagoon has formed, which, according to Department of Fish and Game warden Steven Schindler, is good news for fish.

As Schindler explains, "Sandbars commonly occur at river mouths along the coastline each summer, thereby creating a natural habitat for fishes to breed and spawn in."

Apparently, not everyone is happy about the lagoon. An anonymous tipster told Nüz that someone dug out the river's naturally occurring summer sandbar for two nights straight last month, with the result that the river breached in the early hours of July 23 and washed out to sea all the fish that were then resting in its waters.

According to Section 1603 of the Fish and Game Code, altering the bed, channel or bank of any river, stream or lake without a permit is a misdemeanor punishable by fines or jail time--as Camp Paradise founder Larry Templeton discovered Aug. 3, when the Santa Cruz Police Department ticketed him for violating this same section of the code (in his case, for creating a riverside fishpond).

Normally, such citations are preceded by warnings, and while people won't do time for sneaking home the occasional interesting-looking pebble, whoever breached the sandbar was breaking the law, since nobody at the city, county or state level has a permit to alter the river mouth.

Donna Meyers, administrative analyst for the San Lorenzo Urban River Project, explains why messing with the sandbar is such a bad idea: "During the summer months, as the sandbar develops, the lower part of the lagoon converts to a freshwater lagoon, which is ideal for the steelhead, because it stays cooler and is full of nutrients." Meyers adds that while salt water occasionally gets in by way of large waves, large amounts entering via man-made breaches are something else. "Salt water sits at the bottom and absorbs more sunlight, thereby creating a very hot lagoon, which is particularly problematic in our river since we have no overhanging vegetation. "

So why would anyone want to breach the sandbar? Marine Supervisor John Alexiou of the city's Beach Lifeguard Headquarters says that though breaching the river is completely against lifeguard policies, the lifeguards would sometimes like to, because of health and safety reasons.

"The river backs up and gets funky and stagnant," Alexiou says. "And when the river finally does breach, what was a trickle suddenly becomes a raging flow that could carry someone out to sea." Emphasizing that people should never cross a rapidly moving body of water, Alexiou says his other concern is that, "left to its own devices, the river could breach between lifeguard towers 3 and 5 on the main beach, which would prevent lifeguards from accessing medical emergencies."

Aqua Salzer

Amid all the hubbub over what will happen when Salz closes, no one has mentioned this 145-year-old tannery's historic water right. According to public records at the State Water Resources Control Board, Salz has a year-round use with a maximum storage rate of 1.5 acre-feet annually and maximum direct diversion of 0.668 cubic feet per second --which, science-minded friends assure Nüz, is the equivalent of running 70 garden hoses all year round.

While the purpose of this water use is listed as "leather manufacture," that's an unlikely future use. But since the first year of this use was listed as 1861 (prior to the enactment of the 1914 California Water Commission Right Act) Salz's water right should automatically travel with the title of the land.

True, a private owner would have to apply to the city for any new use (thereby giving the city some control over what that new use might be) but not the right to the water itself. Ceil Cirillo of the city's Redevelopment Agency says the department hasn't discussed any plans to purchase the property, at least not so far. "It's too soon to talk," Cirillo says.

But Bill Cocher, director of the city's Water Department says that at 400,000 gallons per day, Salz's water diversion is "like eyewash," given that 12 million gallons of water course along the river each day. "And just how attractive would Salz' nonprocessed water be to an operation other than a nursery or some form of irrigation?" asks Cocher, who does not rule out the MetroBase as a future tenant at the site, despite its proximity to the river, "because it's below our intake point."

Still, Cocher did admit to Nüz that this trickle "might help fish flow, if restored to the public trust."

Horse Power

Crossing the pedestrian bridge over the San Lorenzo River on our way to the county building, Nüz spotted a sandy Belgian draft horse and an equally gorgeous dark bay Percheron working hard along the riverbank. Randy Clayton, Andy Egger and Paul Servel of Draft Horses for Hire took a five-minute break to tell Nüz that sandy Belgian Josh and dark bay Percheron Jed, whom readers may know from hay rides at Wilder Ranch, carriage rides at Christmas and ploughing sessions at the Homeless Garden, also do river-restoration work, hence their latest gig.

As Clayton explained, "We've got a coho salmon habitat and a river flood plain, so we're working on two different situations, namely saving the fish, without flooding the town."

As part of an agreement with the Army Corps of Engineers, the city removes some vegetation each summer to ensure flood control, while leaving a 10-to-15-foot buffer zone along the edge of the river, a critical component in fish habitat.

According to Clayton, the city decided to use draft horses on the willows in the center of the river instead of hand-cutting branches or bulldozing vegetation, because "horses can remove the entire willow along with the root wad, while leaving the shade-giving alders and sycamores intact."

The beauty of this arrangement is that as the willows get washed out to sea in winter storms, their roots help break up the sediment and scour the riverbed, thus helping with flood control. "And by leaving sycamore and alders, we're creating a canopy so we don't end up cooking the fish, "says Clayton.

Adds Clayton, as Josh and Jed take an unofficial lunch break by nibbling on some tasty sycamore and alder leaves growing nearby, "I'm not against using Caterpillars, depending on the operator, and we use chainsaws and drive trucks, but we're better than your average bear with horses--who are the real superheroes round here."

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From the August 15-22, 2001 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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