Over 50 enthusiastic Santa Cruzans paddled along the San Lorenzo River in kayaks and canoes on Oct. 12. A city ordinance enacted in 1985 would typically prohibit this type of activity, but the recent River Paddle event served as an opportunity for residents to re-evaluate the river as a recreational area.

“It was a pilot project for the city to decide whether to change [the ordinance],” said executive director of the Coastal Watershed Council (CWC) Greg Pepping. “We wanted to test it out and do it for a day, and it was a chance to learn about safety concerns and the other things that can be done [with the river].”

The River Paddle was hosted by the city of Santa Cruz and the CWC. According to their website, the CWC is a nonprofit organization dedicated to preserving and protecting coastal watersheds in the Monterey Bay region through community stewardship, education and monitoring.

Photo courtesy of Melissa Foley.
Photo courtesy of Melissa Foley.

There is currently an ordinance preventing anyone without a permit from using the river for recreational activity. In order to host the experimental event, the CWC acquired a temporary permit from the city.

The CWC is scheduled to meet with City Council in a few weeks to start a formal review of the ordinance, Pepping said. Vice Mayor Lynn Robinson said she is optimistic that action will take place this November.

Among other goals, the CWC plans to lead a River Oversight Committee, which will manage multiple groups focused on public safety and water quality and supply, Pepping said. The River Oversight Committee will also allow community members to voice their opinions about the river, both positive and negative.

This past August, the Santa Cruz Police Department found a body in the San Lorenzo River.

“It’s not unusual that we find bodies in or around the river levee, both in the water as well as on the banks,” said Deputy Chief Steve Clark. “We’ve had a lot of drug and transient related crime. There are a lot of places for people to hide and engage in criminal activity and not be discovered.”

Not only does crime on the levee affect the river itself, it also affects businesses near the San Lorenzo, like those on south River Street.

Mythic Games owner Reuben Timineri, whose store lies across the street from the San Lorenzo River, said someone from the levee wanders into his store and has to be escorted out two or three times a week.

“I have a lot of concern about people trying to do or sell drugs because we have a lot of young kids in the 10 to 12 age group playing here,” Timineri said. “People just loiter outside until security comes and takes them away.”

Executive director of the CWC Greg Pepping believes if the river is opened for recreational use, people will be less likely to commit crimes in or around the levee.

“It’s not a silver bullet to crime in Santa Cruz nor along the river, but people want to do illegal stuff where they can’t be seen,” Pepping said. “As long as you and I and the next person come paddling by, they don’t want to do that there. It doesn’t mean they won’t do it at all, but it means they won’t do it there, and that can change the river.”

Robinson said the city implemented jogging mile markers around the levee and created a river underpass for bike riding, although little work has been done to the river itself.

Because of the crime problem on the levee, the river is a source of frustration for some people, Pepping said, but it could be a draw for a sense of community pride.

“I’m humble about what a small organization with an environmental syllabus can and cannot do,” Pepping said. “I’m also extremely ambitious that if we have even moderate success with our San Lorenzo River project, it will change Santa Cruz.”