For the first time in almost 30 years, a group of human propelled watercraft legally launched on Saturday from San Lorenzo park behind the Santa Cruz County building. It was a glorious sight and hopefully portends the right to paddle our backyard river without special permits.
The Coastal Watershed Council and the City of Santa Cruz co-sponsored the first ever San Lorenzo Paddle Tour as a step towards fulfilling the San Lorenzo Urban River Plan (adopted back in 2003) goals which include improving the urban and neighborhood interface with the San Lorenzo River and incorporating the River into the surrounding urban fabric of downtown and neighborhoods. Though we all enjoy the great riverside levee trail, the fact that a wait list was generated after the 50 paddler spots quickly filled for this event gave proof that our community is overdue access to the river flowing through our downtown.
Santa Cruz council member Don Lane was present to show support of the movement while council member Micah Posner swapped his trademark bike for stand up paddle board to make his way along the river. Even Santa Cruz Mayor, Hilary Bryant addressed us as we eagerly stood on the beach, ready to hit the water in the afternoon sunshine. She spoke in favor of our movement and encouraged us to keep it going. She said she didn’t see any reason why the ordinance prohibiting human powered vessels on the River shouldn’t change.
The ordinance under scrutiny is the following:
9.66.090 BOATS PROHIBITED.
No person shall drive, propel or navigate any boat within all of that portion of the San Lorenzo River which lies within the boundaries of the city of Santa Cruz or within three hundred yards of the mean high tide line within the boundaries of the city of Santa Cruz, except when specifically authorized by the director of parks and recreation or designated agent for the purpose of landing and launching any boat.
(Ord. 85-63 § 1, 1985: Ord. 85-62 § 1, 1985).
This is one of those laws that no one seems to remember why it exists, but there is growing momentum to see it changed. Allowing paddling on the river opens up a recreational resource smack dab in the middle of our city. That’s not only good for locals, it’s good for tourists, which is our town’s bread and butter.
As our flotilla of kayaks, stand up paddle boards and canoes made its way downstream, all of us marveled at the view from the water. We’ve all seen the river from the levee or bridges hundreds of times, but not from the water. At water level buildings and roads disappear behind the levees and we were surrounded by willows, rushes and water.
We made our way leisurely from the shallow launch spot under the Water Street bridge to the ocean, stopping at a marker buoy near the railroad trestle where we got a demonstration of the data collection that regularly takes place on the river. The water is monitored so that major changes in the water quality, such as from fertilizer influx or sewage outfall, could be detected and potentially abated.
We also talked about the potential for the San Lorenzo River to once again support a healthy salmon spawning ground as it once was for one of the farthest south Coho salmon populations.
My favorite quotes I heard during the afternoon float:
“This is way better than [paddling] the harbor!” From a SUP paddler.
“This is so cool, there’s no way I’m not doing this again!” from a kayaker after reaching the end of the lagoon created by a sandbar at Main Beach.
Being present at the first paddle tour was an incredible feeling. I’m a water person myself and to not really have recognized, much less fight for, my own backyard river as a source of recreation suddenly feels like an embarrassing oversight. It makes me realize how easy it is to not see what is right in front of us and carry on with the status quo. I’ve always wondered why no one was ever floating on the river, but I never bothered to ask. Nor would I have known who to ask. But now I do know, and I will continue to ask. I’ll be writing to my city council members and following the Coastal Watershed Council’s plans for the San Lorenzo.
On the eve of Santa Cruz Open Streets, there couldn’t have been a more perfect prelude than a movement for open rivers!