Dear Jane and all Friends of the Flora and Fauna of the San Lorenzo River,
One of my favorite Buddhist sayings is “The life of a sage is one mistake after another.” This phrase consoles me as I stumble forward in my life. Today I am going to write about some possible blunders I may have quite innocently been making in regards to the river. I’ll be interested in the opinions of you readers.
But first let me say that it feels really good to be back writing about the river after two months on vacation. A thousand thanks to you, Jane, for holding up more than your half of heaven with a faithful contribution every two weeks. As usual, your posts have been full of delightful observations and insights. I can’t imagine there are many others in the City who have such a keen eye for the unique vagaries of both birds and people on the river, and who can write about the fish and the flora, the insects and the mammals, with more liveliness.
In this blog piece I am going to focus mostly on plant life –not so much on the names and photos of actual plants but on the much-dreaded annual flood control work that is required by both our local and federal (Army Corps of Engineers) governments and which is about to begin in the next weeks. Of course, none of us want our city to be flooded. We can be grateful that our Public Works Department takes very seriously their mission to prevent such a catastrophe. And it is indeed sobering that the El Rio Mobile Home Park where I live, right next to the levee, is the officially designated spillway or ‘levee breakout section’ in case of a levee breach.
Yet it is also not to be forgotten that our City has a proud history of not allowing the Army Corps of Engineers to call all the shots, to exaggerate the dangers. Every year the challenge for us wildlife advocates is to continue this honorable tradition, finding the wiggle room within flood control requirements that will protect as much flora and fauna on the river as is possible within the constraints of local and federal law.
A little history might help here. In cities like Los Angeles, flood control work by the Army Corps of Engineers imprisoned many beautiful rivers inside straight concrete ditches, creating blight rather than beauty, horrors rather than habitat. We can get a small, first-hand taste of that distasteful reality if we look at the concrete ditch hemming in Branciforte Creek that drains into the River just below Soquel Bridge. Los Angeles has only recently begun to dig itself slowly and painfully out of its former mistake.
Here in Santa Cruz, we escaped such a fate only through the combined efforts of a progressive City Council led by Chris Krohn, environmentally committed staff persons like Joe Hall, and many community activists like Bruce Van Allen and, yes, you Jane. In 2003, you and Bruce and many others agreed to serve on a River Task Force that finally succeeded in delivering a win/win agreement where a stubborn ACE and an equally stubborn City came to an agreement that was designed to protect as much riparian wildlife habitat as possible – within the constraints of adequate flood control. The resulting 79–page document, titled the San Lorenzo Urban River Plan (or SLURP), plus its 127-page Appendix A titled the Lower San Lorenzo River and Lagoon Management Plan, was adopted in 2003 and has been the official governing document regarding river management for the last 16 years. (Readers can find online links to both these documents on the ‘Links’ page of this blog. Scroll down to “Important City Documents”.). In my opinion, it is Appendix A (or what I call the Swanson Report), much more than the main document, that is by far the most interesting document from an environmental point of view. It includes a tremendous amount of information about existing native and non-native plants at the time it was adopted in 2002; recommended thinning prescriptions on each of the three reaches; plus sections on flood control constraints, lists of fish and bird species, hydrology and geology, many photos and charts, and much more. It is a treasure trove and would take years to truly digest.It also happens to include Table 8 titled Species List for Revegetation in the Riverine Reach which happens to be the chart that, right this moment, is perplexing me immensely! See the chart and discussion later in this article.
After you drew me into the anti-kayaking campaign in 2014, Jane, I began to pay more attention to what was going on in this river, especially the ‘riverine reach’ right behind my house – from the Felker St. Pedestrian Bridge to the Water St. Bridge. Like you, I became very distressed about the ‘scalping’ of the levee each fall by bulldozers and chainsaws. During 2015 and 2016, I tried to understand if there was anything constructive that I could do to protect more habitat – apart from pestering the poor chainsaw crew that I soon realized were just trying to follow what their little SLURP chart said, as best they could. Here’s the chart we were all arguing about:
The foreman of the cutting crew, Randy Clayton, carried this scrap of paper with him at all times, and so did I. I eventually came to realize that the City was cutting much more along the toe of the levee than was allowed by this document – mostly I guessed because the City wanted to remove vegetation that provided hiding places for illegal campers. I pointed this out to Public Works in 2017 and somehow managed to persuade them, after a good deal of back and forth, that if they were going to remove the 10-foot strip that was protected habitat along the toe of the levee, then they needed to make up for that habitat loss by adding it somewhere else, maybe along the required 5-foot swath immediately adjacent to the river. Otherwise, they would be out of compliance with SLURP. It worked! The City agreed to do that in 2017, and continued the practice in 2018. I was, for a brief moment, proud of this achievement.
In addition, in 2018, Public Works began marking some smaller native shrubs (mostly coyote bush) with orange ribbons to declare them off bounds for cutting. And, perhaps even more importantly, they asked the consulting biologist to train the cutting crew in what to cut and what not to cut, based on the SLURP chart modified by our informal agreement the previous year.
But my joy has been short lived. Now I am pulling my hair out about the possible significance of Table 8 , above, a list of the plant species recommended by SLURP for revegetation on the riverine reach, I realized that I may have been too hasty in suggesting the so called win/win solution of moving the 10-foot strip towards the river. I now notice that the trees that were supposedly to be planted along the levee toe were the white alder and the yellow willow, very different from the arroyo willows along the bank of the river. Why had the Native Vegetation Network that had helped write this part of SLURP been that specific about the specific trees at specific points on the levee bank. Had I sacrificed bio-diversity for mathematical equialence? I realize I just don’t know enough about these trees, what habitat they require, how they differ from the other trees in terms of water needs, wildlife value, etc. I have no easy answer today and want to post this piece before midnight. I am also wondering about the direction that red willows and box elders be planted on the upper levee slope, and that the black cottonwoods and California sycamores be planted maybe halfway down. Were these four trees meant to be subjected to the same 6″ trunk limit as the alders and yellow willows at the toe of the levee? Why didn’t the other chart say so? I am thinking we need input from some native plant specialists.
Maybe a few readers will be as obsessed as I am about this matter of trees (and shrubs and grasses) on the levee and will be willing to study these two charts to see how they relate to each other. In any case, I willingly confess to being in a state of confusion. I’m allowing myself to happily follow the path of the blundering sage, the better to learn a few new things.
The main question is how can we protect the maximum amount of wildlife habitat while still respecting the key goal of protecting the City from destructive floods. That’s the challenge. Let’s all work together.
Here are my two most recent eBird lists from earlier this week – 22 bird species on Sunday, click here and 19 bird species yesterday, click here. I’ve been seeing lots of Wilson’s warblers but have no idea if they are some year round residents or migrants on their way south from as far north as Alaska.
Yesterday, near the Water St. Bridge, I also saw this winsome rabbit looking at me very solemnly as if to question my human intentions. She had good reason. Her habitat is especially threatened by the upcoming flood control work. Cross your fingers that she makes it through with her home intact.
Thank you all for caring. And may you all enjoy your own personal and very safe habitat.