My Backyard River

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.

"Area Open" for the day

“Area Open” for the day

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.

Mayor Bryant loves the San Lorenzo too!

Mayor Bryant loves the San Lorenzo too!

The ordinance under scrutiny is the following:


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.

SUP Shack - it's a family effort to support access to our waterways

SUP Shack – it’s a family effort to support access to our waterways

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.

Stand up paddlers navigate the calm waters of the San Lorenzo River

Stand up paddlers navigate the calm waters of the San Lorenzo River

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.

The perfect way for kids to learn about their watersheds!

The perfect way for kids to learn about their watersheds!

Just about every city and county agency that has something to do with water supports changing the access ban.

Just about every city and county agency that has something to do with water supports changing the access ban.

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!

4 thoughts on “My Backyard River

  1. There is an important factor left out in this glowing report on paddling on the river: What about the wildlife on and in the river that is disturbed, displaced and disrupted by people paddling boast and boards in their habitat? I personally observed, recorded and photographed birds fleeing the paddlers the moment hey put their crafts in the water. I followed the paddlers downstream and watched them flush birds from the water everywhere they went.

    Who speaks for the wildlife of the San Lorenzo River? Who gets to say that wildlife don’t count, that only human desires are important?

    It’s time that humans act as a part of the natural world, not apart from it.

    • Michael,
      You raise a very important point and in the case of the San Lorenzo River, studying the effects of the wildlife (including birds and fish) is a part of the overall planning process for how to open access to the river. This topic also begs the questions of potential habituation of wildlife to people (Will they get used to our presence?) and potential effects of people walking on the levee (Could walking cause just as much disturbance and should we stop that too?). When the L.A. River was opened to guided paddle excursions, through Paddle the LA River, studies showed no significant impact on bird behavior over time.

      You are right that we need to act as part of the natural world, and this means that we cannot completely separate ourselves from wildlife. We do, in fact, interact with it in a very intimate way on the river. For some people this may be the closest they get to such wildlife and it provides an invaluable initiation of respect and understanding of wilderness. Our interactions with nature are what make us care about it. The more we care, the more we work to protect, and in that sense, I believe that the San Lorenzo River can act as a catalyst for more people to get to know their local watershed and its valuable habitat, for both humans, and wildlife.

      I encourage you to voice your concerns and opinions with the Coastal Watershed Council. They are seeking input and offering public paddles as a means to further involve the people of Santa Cruz in developing how the San Lorenzo River is used.

      • I am an educator and have been on the planet for 63 years.
        For the majority of my life I have been educated by rivers and their habitat.
        It has been my experience that any human presence or activity on natural watercourses has a predictable detrimental affect on the habitat.
        I am not alone in this observation. Any human presence will disturb wildlife and can move them away permanently. This has already taken place on the San Lorenzo River.

        It would be a major disservice to wildlife and the nature appreciating residents of Santa Cruz to allow closer pedestrian access and watercraft/ kayak use on the river.

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