When Laurie Egan began working as a “River Champion” for the Coastal Watershed Council in 2013, she frequently found that people didn’t even know the name of the San Lorenzo River. The river that winds through downtown Santa Cruz and provides 100,000 people with drinking water was an afterthought to many residents.
“Even some of the simplest connections to this river just weren’t there as a community,” she says. Over the years, through the efforts of nonprofits like the Coastal Watershed Council and its partners, she watched that ignorance largely disappear.
“Now people know exactly where the river is. They have ideas for how they want to see it improve,” she says. “There’s a much stronger connection to what this space could be, and we hear from folks that have used the river for many, many years that it is so much better today than it used to be.”
When the Coastal Watershed Council started in 1995, it attempted to cover several watersheds in the Monterey Bay Area. But over time, the nonprofit zeroed in on the San Lorenzo. In 2013, it co-founded the San Lorenzo River Alliance, which included government, business and community partners.
“And then one of the things we realized is even within that, there was still this incredible need specifically along the last two and a half miles of the river—this urban stretch—which continually was put on the back burner,” says Egan.
Now CWC focuses its efforts on that last section, hosting restoration planting days, educational outreach events and conversations with the Beach Flats communities bordering the river.
As we walk along the bank, she points out native bushes and flowers planted by students and volunteers. The sticky monkey-flower is a favorite among elementary school kids, both for its playful name and its bright mango-colored blooms. Other river visitors love the native sage for its sweet smell. Birds and butterflies pass us on the trail.
“When you get off the path and spend some time even just 20 feet over there down in the channel, the city melts away a little bit,” says Egan. “Plants and birds and the calmness of nature—”
The clatter of metal interrupts her.
“And construction,” she says with a laugh.
CWC has intentionally focused its efforts on the stretch of river nearest the new development between the Laurel and Soquel Avenue bridges.
“Not only because it had a lot of invasive species that needed removal, which we’ve tackled,” says Egan. “But we really want our community to see what’s possible for the river, and in a few years time to be able to stand in that space and to look around and to not only see shiny new buildings or cafes on the river for the first time, but also see that balanced with a thriving river ecosystem.”
In addition to working on the river, CWC played a part in creating new requirements for downtown development along its shore. New buildings will incorporate the river into their design, Egan says. She hopes that the shift in focus, alongside youth education and planting days will draw more resources to the San Lorenzo.
“As we think about growth and development, as we think about climate change, as we think about all these different conversations, having clean water is foundational for all of it,” she says.
CWC hosts restoration events on the second Saturday of every month. To learn more about upcoming events, after-school programs, community partnerships and to explore features of the river ecosystem, visit coastal-watershed.org
Save Our Shores
As CWC works to restore the San Lorenzo, Save Our Shores tackles the surrounding beaches. Known for its beach cleanups, the local nonprofit is expanding its attention to after-school programs.
“Our big project for 2023 is reducing barriers to coastal access for our local youth,” says Krista Rogers, the Save Our Shores program manager. “Introducing our underserved youth to the Monterey Bay, our coastal environments and connecting them with ecosystems that they may not have the opportunities to connect with and hopefully inspiring them to become caretakers of this amazing place that we live in.”
The nonprofit will launch a 15-week after-school program called Junior Sanctuary Stewards. Once a week, kids will take buses from their schools to different locations around Monterey Bay, where they can participate in “education activities, restoration projects and just have fun with nature as the classroom,” says Rogers.
SOS planned the program to meet the after-school needs of parents, and to improve environmental access for the next generation, hopefully eventually inspiring action.
“Most people won’t be interested or want to conserve a place that they’ve never been or never experienced,” says Rogers. “So having those experiences is the first step in building stewards for the future.”
Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary Foundation
In a similar mindset, the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary Foundation plans to expand its educational programs and improve access to the coast. The organization serves as the “nonprofit buddy and chief advocate of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary,” says director Ginaia Kelly.
The foundation funds programs like whale disentanglements, marine debris cleanups, bilingual educators and research projects.
For Santa Cruz Gives, the nonprofit is focusing on bringing “ocean education to inland underserved communities and bringing those schoolchildren out to our Sanctuary Exploration Center across the street from the Santa Cruz Municipal Wharf,” says Kelly.
The students learn about watersheds and marine ecosystems at the center then go across the street to take water samples and observe the sea life around the wharf. The foundation stresses that Monterey Bay is a unique hotbed of life, and what happens inland directly affects it.
“Our mission is to leave a thriving and healthy Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary for future generations,” says Kelly.
She adds that this year marks the 30th anniversary of the sanctuary. “It’s because of the sanctuary that we are able to preserve and maintain this thriving ecosystem,” she says.
Watsonville Wetlands Watch
As its partners expand education for young kids, Watsonville Wetlands Watch empowers older students to change their communities.
“Our Santa Cruz Gives project is focused on the Watsonville Community Forest Project, which has two components,” says executive director Jonathan Pilch. “One is developing youth leadership within our Climate Core Youth Leadership Institute, which is a job training program for Watsonville area teens.”
The paid program involves urban forestry, watershed restoration and climate action projects.
“The other major component of our big idea for the Gives campaign is reforesting the city of Watsonville,” says Pilch. “We have a project that’s working to transform the current tree canopy in the city from a very low 9% to 30%.”
More trees around the community provide cleaner air, shade and habitat for native species. Watsonville Wetlands Watch has planted about 1,100 trees on schools, streets and parks, but it will take thousands more to reach the goal of 30%.
Putting youth leaders in charge of the urban forestry projects “is a great opportunity for them to step into their own voice,” says Pilch. “It opens their eyes to new career pathways and helps them understand that they have the ability to make a really big impact in their community.”
County Park Friends
From wetlands to beaches to redwood forests, Santa Cruz County is home to many parks. County Park Friends aims to “activate and maximize” those public spaces, says executive director Mariah Roberts.
Over half of the population lives in unincorporated areas and does not have city-funded services, meaning county parks provide the programs.
“And their public funding is not enough to truly deliver what our community wants and needs,” says Roberts.
County Park Friends is currently focusing on expanding free programs such as wheelchair basketball, docent-led family urban hikes and swimming lessons.
“We believe and know from research that time in nature is one of the most cost-effective ways to support mental health, physical health, social health,” says Roberts.
“We’re the backbone organization for a multi-agency effort called ParkRX Santa Cruz County … The funds raised will help us to be able to co-design and deliver programs that can be prescribed or referred from school counselors or clinics.”
The organization is collaborating with seventeen other nonprofits and plans to continue discussing equitable access to parks and the role they play in community health.
“It is larger than us,” says Roberts. “We are very, very aware of being one piece of a much larger movement. And we’re very excited about that.”
Climate change is not going away, but that’s no reason to give up. Each year, the Watsonville-based climate justice organization Regeneración hosts the Climate of Hope forum. This year, the forum will feature muralists, poets and other “artivists.”
“We can all find a place to plug in, and we can plug in according to our interests and passions,” says executive director and founder Nancy Faulstich.
“Art is a terrific way to help alert everybody to what’s happening with the environment and inspire people to take action.”
The creative process can also provide a way to cope with the losses that come with climate change, says Faulstich.
The nonprofit hopes that incorporating art into its activism will help build community, in addition to inspiring action. The group is currently organizing three artist-led workshops and plans to host more later in the year. The Climate of Hope forum will take place online on Feb. 23.
Donate to these and other Santa Cruz Gives groups at santacruzgives.org; follow @santacruzgives on Facebook and Instagram. The campaign runs through midnight on Dec. 31.