Aaah – it is almost August 1 and I am in my usual state of dread and agitation. Soon now chainsaws and tractors will take over the levee banks. The goal: to remove vegetation that according to the Army Corps of Engineers might contribute to flooding during the rainy winter months. A second stated goal: to remove vegetation that hides illegal camping and deters police access. The victims: The birds, mammals, butterflies, insects, amphibians and reptiles that use this habitat as their dining rooms, bedrooms, and even nurseries – as well as the plants themselves! The cause of this culture clash: the human folly of building our homes and businesses on a flood plain. There’s my nutshell summation.
More up close, this is the first anniversary of my discovery of Stripy, a baby PIED-BILLED GREBE, that I was lucky enough to discover just days before the tractors and chainsaws reached that stretch of the river. If you haven’t already, you can read about my adventures with Stripy in a post last year about this time. You can also read a children’s picture book that I was inspired to write about this story. Happy Birthday, Stripy!
I do not dismiss the gravity of flooding! Living right next to the river I worry every year about floods. Would I want to live here without a levee? Probably not! But it seems to me that the least we can do is offer as much protection and encouragement as we can to the flora and fauna that have managed to rise from the dust since the levee was raised in 1999. Is our City doing that? Well – yes and no. Certainly not enough to satisfy me. Here’s what I’ve been doing about this situation in the last couple of weeks.
Bruce Van Allen and I met in person with several members of the staff of the Public Works Department, the department which oversees the vegetation removal. The staff had two major subjects that they wanted to share with us. The first is that the Public Works Department is now in the process of studying major new flood control work within the low flow channel of the freshwater reach of the river (from Highway 1 to Water Street) that will “work to keep the sedimentation in balance, even during low flows.” Sedimentation is a major problem for wildlife (as well as for flooding) but a dredging approach has been rejected for many years. I’m not sure how this approach differs. I will try to find out more about exactly what is being researched and let you all know. Since restoration work is part of the plan, I suspect that the City anticipates major damage to the existing wildlife habitat. Stay tuned.
Secondly, staff members wanted us to understand how unusual the situation is in Santa Cruz in regards to revegetation of a levee. It was a good reminder and helped put things in perspective. If the Army Corps of Engineers had had their way in 1999, the levee banks and river’s edge would have remained a barren stretch of dirt and rock. Fortunately, members of the public as well as the last environmentally-minded City Council joined the California Department of Fish and Wildlife in fighting to restore at least some of the native plants that originally graced the banks of the river. As a result, the urban stretch of the San Lorenzo River is now one of only a few levees in the nation with as much vegetation as now exists. It is also listed as one of the top 15 birding areas in Santa Cruz County, a county famous for the diversity of its birds. According to Steve Gerow, one of our area’s leading birders, there are 122 species of birds that regularly depend on the river for survival.
Another positive piece of this puzzle is that the City is required to sign an agreement with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife every year called the Streambed Alteration Agreement. This Agreement includes provisions for protection of birds as well as vegetation.
The agenda that Bruce and I brought to the table was asking the City to do more to protect the flora and fauna of the river. First, we wanted to make sure that Public Works intended to send out a qualified biologist to survey the area for nesting birds, as required by the Streambed Alteration Agreement. We have been informed since that meeting that the City has hired Gary Kittleson, a Qualified Biologist, to conduct the required survey this year.
Unfortunately, Public Works has not been able to assure us that the vegetation removal will be able to spare the native plants that now exist on the river and/or remove the invasive species that would allow more natural recruitment of native species. Protection and restoration of native plants is an important goal that we need to actively pursue with the City. In the Streambed Alteration Agreement, it specifically cites ‘riparian vegetation’ as an area that is threatened by the City’s annual vegetation removal work. There is no point in destroying native plants with one hand and then doing restoration work with the other.
I wanted to know more about the vegetation on the river so I asked some botanically minded friends to help me with identification. We identified the following twenty-seven (27) species of native trees, shrubs, herbs and grasses on just the freshwater reach of the river from Highway 1 to Water St : Arroyo Willow, Yellow Willow, Sandbar Willow, Cottonwood, Box Elder, White Alder, Coast Live Oak, Sycamore, Creek Dogwood, California Poppy, Native Blackberry, Tule, Native Nettle, Mugwort, Smartweed, Pennyroyal, Triplex, Horsetail, Cattails, Hooker’s Primrose, Stinging Nettle, Grindelia, Western Goldenrod, Umbrella Sedge, Bulrush, Coyote Bush. We also identified 25 non-native species, which include species like fennel that provide excellent wildlife value. This is very far from a complete list, even of the riverine reach. And we did not survey any of the river from Water to the Estuary! I want the City to fund a survey of all the native plants on the river by a qualified botanist. After that, we should work with ecologists and botanists and native plant groups to develop an overall plan for protection and restoration of native plant species.
I feel positive about our ability to work constructively with Public Works. They are properly worried about flood control. We are most worried about wildlife protection. Both are important concerns and I’m sure we can work together.
Happy Birthday, Stripy. May all nestlings become fledglings and may all fledglings grow up to live happy river lives!
And a happy river life to you, too, Jane!