.River Rescuers

Unhoused volunteers are helping to restore the San Lorenzo River

On the asphalt levee of the San Lorenzo River, a half mile from where the river mouth spills into the ocean, a huddle of mustard yellow shirts awaits instructions.

“Listen up, sugarplums!” says Jane Mio, drawing to her the eyes of the roughly dozen volunteers.

Mio gives direction to the group as they begin their weekly restoration efforts along the southernmost levees of the river. She is one of the leads of the River Stewards program, a collaboration between the Santa Cruz chapter of the Downtown Streets Team (DST) and the Coastal Watershed Council (CWC).

On this day, the team is clearing a patch of vegetation where some heavy equipment prolongedly sat, spreading invasive wheat seeds that had taken a ride on the machines.

“We’re doing the tedious work of liberating the plants,” Mio says. “And some of my people planted these yarrows a couple of years ago. The DST program als planted some of the buckeye.”

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Mio is a local environmentalist and a fixture in the community. She is a Parks and Recreation commissioner for the City of Santa Cruz and has been involved with the Benchland Estuary Stewardship Program (BEST) amongst other projects. In 2022,  the Santa Cruz City Council even dedicated an official day to her, Jane Mio Day.

The River Stewards program is the latest iteration of her ongoing endeavor, an extension of the BEST program, and has operated for the last two years. Unhoused individuals that are already contributing to the beautification of the city through DST are now learning about habitat restoration and river ecology. Participants receive a $20 gift card after each volunteer session.

“We had that root and [the] funding, and we were trying to figure out how to continue this,” Mio explains. “CWC and DST joined and worked together to do this.”

Erin Loury, Communications Manager for CWC, says that the program is funded by the California Coastal Commision through its Whale Tail grant initiative, and county funding sources such as the Fish and Wildlife Advisory Commision.

“With a program like this we get this consistent stewardship from a group of people and you get to see them really build that relationship with the river, which is really wonderful to see,” Loury says.

As the work gets underway, a volunteer that goes by the name “Cheetah”—a reference to the cheetah print cap he dons— says that the River Stewards have helped him meet new friends and stay out of trouble. He followed Mio over from the BEST program.

Cheetah, 59, is currently unhoused and lives in a tent near the work site. He’s decorated the outside of his tent with plants and also has a job keeping the levee corridor from the Laurel Street bridge down to the Boardwalk clean of trash. 

“She taught us about how to restore the river. We clean up the trash, we’re planting or pulling up the ones that shouldn’t be there,” Cheetah says. “It’s really amazing.”

As the yellow shirts begin to crouch down and dig with hand shovels, Kaiya Giuliano-Monroy arrives and does a quick check-in with a volunteer. Giuliano-Monroy is a River Ecologist with CWC and team lead alongside Mio.

“I call it extreme gardening,” Giuliano-Monroy says.

There are various endangered species that inhabit the river, including steelhead trout and cliff swallows, she notes, and says their restoration efforts have revitalized this estuary.

“I actually saw a school of [steelhead trout] recently under the Chinatown bridge.”

A goal of the project, according to Giuliano-Monroy, is to build up a lush ecosystem along the levee that will attract pollinators, birds and fish.

“It’s like starting at the baseline to make the river a better ecosystem and then hoping that it works out towards the top,” she says. “It won’t ever be perfect because it’s a levee, but it’s definitely better than nothing.”

For Tom Fleischman, who is a volunteer team lead for Downtown Streets Team, being part of the restoration work signals to the community that unhoused people have much to contribute.

“I think that the people who are in need can have substantial contributions to our city beautification projects. Planting, gardening, all kinds of different things.”

1 COMMENT

  1. A big round of applause to josué Monroy & the Good Times & here is why:
    Josué Monroy’s 5/15 “River Rescuers” article offers encompassing & personal insights into the River Stewards’ achievements thanks to the collaboration of Downtown Streets Team & the Coastal Watershed Council. Monroy’s report caught the essence of the participants & Program vividly.
    Good Times published a rare article that highlights the positive contributions of the houseless River Stewards on behalf of the Santa Cruz community & environment.
    So applause & big thanks for the “River Rescuers” article, which many of your readers enjoyed reading.

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