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River's Phoenix

[whitespace] Jessica Denevan & Bruce Van Allen
Reflecting on Values: Director Jessica Denevan and founder Bruce Van Allen of the San Lorenzo River Institute believe the key to restoration lies in shifting attitudes through education.

Photo by Robert Scheer

After decades of neglect, the San Lorenzo River is being reimagined as the lifeblood of the community

By Mary Spicuzza

EACH DAY GONDOLAS weave through the labyrinthine canals of Venice, parting the waters and neighborhoods behind them. These waterways have earned the town its reputation as one of the most romantic cities on Earth, but in truth most great cities have a river running through their hearts. Paris has the Seine, Vienna the Danube. The Thames flows sedately through London and the Tiber through Rome. Even the Hudson and East rivers in New York give evidence to the ways great cities celebrate their rivers.

Then there's the San Lorenzo River. Flowing through a town that prides itself on its environmental consciousness, the San Lorenzo remains a jagged scar, a reminder of the mistakes of past generations. Once a pride of the region, the river today sluggishly straggles through town. Instead of looking to the river as a cultural inspiration or an economic asset, Santa Cruz still uses the San Lorenzo as a back-alley stream and a drainage ditch.

The steelhead trout and coho salmon are mostly gone. More than 30,000 fish lived in the river in 1960, but a meager 1,000 survived in 1994, and recent counts put the number at 3,000. Willows, alders and other native plants no longer crowd its edges. Every store and office building downtown bordering the San Lorenzo faces away from its forgotten banks.

The only people who spend much time on the levee seem to be homeless people setting up encampments or junkies looking for a fix. The vile state of the riverbanks is often blamed on these folks, who leave the watershed littered with beer bottles, syringes and rotting garbage. But the San Lorenzo's problems lie much deeper than a few disenfranchised litterbugs, and they'll take longer to solve than an afternoon of cleaning up.

Santa Cruz city planners, watershed specialists, more than a dozen local schools and several politicians have joined in a 20-year effort, spearheaded by the San Lorenzo River Institute, to bring the river back into a state of health. The institute, founded by former mayor Bruce Van Allen and directed by Jessica Denevan, aims to make the San Lorenzo an integral part of the life of the city.

There's a lot of work to be done. Many factors have contributed to the decline of the San Lorenzo, which once held the largest population of steelhead and salmon south of San Francisco Bay.

Ever since Spanish settlers arrived in 1789, urban development has brought with it deforestation and subsequent erosion, as well as pollution from sewage. During the late 19th century, tanneries, dairies and other industries contributed to the river's degradation. Later, street run-off dumped oil and gasoline into the mix.

Still, it was people with the best of intentions who wreaked the worst damage on the San Lorenzo--all in the name of flood control.

Engineers completely altered the river's character after the destructive floods of 1955. Following fierce winter rains, the San Lorenzo flooded Front Street and Pacific Avenue. The river swallowed downtown shops and a Chinese neighborhood on Front Street and wiped away acres of farmland. Planners estimate that $40 million worth of damage was done.

The U.S. government declared Santa Cruz a disaster area and named the city one of the worst flood hazards in the country.

Corps of the Problem

A PERIOD OF PANIC followed the floods of '55. During this time the Army Corps of Engineers, which had first promised flood control in 1938, intervened, hoping to avoid further disaster. In a frenzy of attempts at flood prevention, the corps and the city of Santa Cruz ripped out the lush forest of trees and brush lining the watershed and built a concrete levee. They believed dredging the river could keep the channel bottom lowered enough to allow big rains to drain to the bay.

The city then decided that while the river was already being manipulated, it would be a perfect time to work in some urban expansion. Planners built a narrowed levee through downtown to create additional space for the business community to grow in the heart of the city--which also happened to be in the center of the flood plain.

Four years and $2.2 million later, the Army Corps chalked the Santa Cruz project up as another success story. In 1959 it left the city responsible for dredging five to seven feet of sediment from the bottom of the San Lorenzo each year.

But the following years proved that something in the grand plan for the San Lorenzo had gone very wrong. Silt levels accumulated faster than the city could dredge the dirt, so the sediment blocking the waterway remained, leading to more floods. The river became shallower with each winter rain and took on the look of a concrete drainage channel instead of a natural ecosystem.

Meanwhile, with fish populations plummeting, many people blamed the sewage and pollution. But recent studies have found that flood-control efforts are the real culprits. With no trees to shade them, fish eggs have little chance to hide from predators. And the dredging stirred up silt, which buried the fish eggs.

"For a long time the corps blamed Santa Cruz for failing to uphold its part of the bargain," says Joe Hall of the Santa Cruz Redevelopment Agency. "Meanwhile the city insisted that the corps' plan was doomed to fail."

Van Allen agrees that relations between the two entities were strained. "The attitude between the corps and the city was one of 'We'll see you in court when the next big flood comes,' " he says.

Robert Scheer

World Class: Students from Kristin Van Klootwyk's Fall Creek Home School Class investigate the water quality of streams feeding into the San Lorenzo.

First Alarm

NATURAL DISASTERS aren't usually seen as a blessing. But the flood of 1982 provided a catalyst for discoveries about the San Lorenzo. The first lesson was that flood-control efforts were inadequate. The storm of '82 was fierce but no ark-building monsoon. Engineers, who had hoped the concrete would guard against a 100-year flood, watched helplessly as the river came within a few feet of topping the levee. Logs jammed under the Soquel Avenue Bridge and caused it to collapse, while the river surged over the Riverside Avenue Bridge.

Both city and corps researchers studying the river discovered the sediment levels were accumulating so rapidly that no amount of dredging by the city could provide sufficient protection against flooding. Definitely not what the corps wanted to hear.

"We had a big meeting in San Francisco about the watershed in 1985," Van Allen says. "The corps didn't want to accept the new findings, not even from its own scientists. The meeting escalated until I made it clear we weren't using the scientific evidence as legal proof against the corps. Finally, both groups agreed to find a way to work together."

The floods of the early '80s also stirred up renewed public interest in the San Lorenzo. In 1985 a citizens' task force worked with watershed experts and city planners to develop a restoration plan. The city adopted the proposal, known as the San Lorenzo River Draft Design Concept, two years later. These idealistic plans called for flood control with an environmental conscience. The committee, which included Van Allen, also hoped that beautifying the watershed would make locals actually want to spend time along the river.

However, the federal government under the Reagan Administration made the job difficult, Hall says. "Throughout the '80s, you couldn't even talk about restoration or the environment," he says.

"It's gotten much better since Reagan left office," says Hall, who has been working on river restoration since 1985. "But the corps still has a bias against urban restoration."

"If it weren't for [longtime Monterey Bay area Congressmember] Sam Farr, who I've seen literally running people down in the halls of the Capitol to talk to them about the San Lorenzo River, we would be nowhere near where we are now," Hall says with admiration.

Ten years after the close of the Reagan era, one might think the San Lorenzo remains a forgotten river. On a hike last month, my group spotted a few egrets and one blue heron picking through the river's littered grasses. Yet the number of people gathered around one upside-down soda can being used to heat heroin outnumbered the nature hikers. Still, anyone ready to file the San Lorenzo as another apocalyptic tale of environmental decay needs to take a deeper look.

With the flood-control aspect of the river restoration plans already well under way, the Water Street and River Street bridges rebuilt and the Soquel Avenue Bridge currently under construction (at a combined cost of $20 million), the $11 million project of raising the river levee is set to begin. The federal government is contributing 75 percent of the money to cover this work, and as the threat of flooding is reduced, the city promises to undertake a huge habitat restoration project.

While the topic may have been taboo in the '80s, politicians like Farr and Fred Keeley have persuaded the corps to help achieve the vision of a revegetated, living watershed.

Wet Dreams

THE CITY'S ADOPTION of the initial river restoration draft and later River Enhancement Plan signals new hope for local environmentalists. But folks at the San Lorenzo River Institute have a vision that stretches beyond legislative victories. "I think the main thing now is changing attitudes and consciousness about the river," Van Allen says. "Our education plan is the most exciting project we have going. We've been trashing that river for 200 years, and we need to make some major changes."

The institute, a project of the William James Association, currently works with local teachers to involve children in its work. Kids do field research in the watershed, conduct tests and record their results on the institute's Web site, known as the Picture Dictionary of the San Lorenzo Watershed.

"The Picture Dictionary is both a product and a process," newly appointed SLRI Director Jessica Denevan explains. "Our goal is to make these children full participants in their own education while experiencing the real world all around them."

Dozens of teachers from various local schools rave about the institute's programs, and Branciforte Elementary has adopted the San Lorenzo as a theme project for the next three years.

In fact, students conducting water- quality tests recently discovered that the health of the river and its ability to sustain life are actually quite good. That allows the river's supporters to imagine a return to the river's glory days.

Beginning in the late 19th century and continuing into the Roaring '20s, Santa Cruz hosted a huge annual Venetian Water Festival along the shores of the San Lorenzo. These carnivals celebrated the vitality of the river with gondola rides, swimming, games and fresh fish caught from the river.

Even river visionary Van Allen admits having doubts in the past that the watershed can once again become the vibrant community gathering place of those times.

"I've been hauling around these stacks of plans for so long, to so many meetings, saying, 'These changes are going to happen,' " Van Allen says. "Meanwhile I was trying to convince myself of the same thing. Sometimes it's hard for me to believe that now our plans really are being put into action."

Van Allen, Denevan and Hall envision walkways extending from the mouth of the river to Sycamore Grove, the Pogonip, Henry Cowell Park and beyond. They will pass replanted groves of trees and native plants. New and improved bike paths will wind around Beach Hill and East Cliff Drive.

These visions could seem like pipe dreams, but the plan is in motion.

"In my vision, the river will be part of a healthy Monterey Bay ecosystem," Van Allen says. "We will see the return of migrating fish and of wildlife. Of course, the San Lorenzo will always be an urban watershed, so humans living productively and harmoniously with the river must be a part of the vision."

The San Lorenzo will never be an artery of commerce the way the grand rivers of the ancient world were. But with assiduous attention and careful planning, it could easily become a stream of aesthetic and environmental consciousness--a scenario we've hardly even begun to imagine.

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From the January 15-21, 1998 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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