On Thursday, October 3, 2019, the Central Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board convened a solution-focused collaborative forum on the water quality impacts of homelessness. The goal of the forum was to identify and promote actions that reduce homelessness as well as associated water quality impacts and risks to human health.

Homelessness is increasingly becoming a priority concern for Californians, including the public, cities and counties. For the first time in a recent poll, homelessness was identified as the top concern of respondents, right alongside other issues like the economy. In the water quality sphere, the Regional Water Board is hearing consistently from municipalities that homelessness is a significant factor impacting their water quality work. Encampments in riparian areas and river corridors may influence water quality and watershed health in a variety of ways. Some commonly cited concerns include defecation along waterways, trash and debris buildup, biohazard risk from hypodermic needles, degraded habitat conditions from trampling and camping, and enhanced risk of wildfire ignitions. While anecdotal observations can be made that homeless encampments impact water quality (e.g. by observing trash and human waste along rivers), current water quality bacterial testing cannot differentiate between human waste sources (e.g. encampments vs. leaky sewer laterals). On top of that, myths and stigmas about people experiencing homelessness abound. One familiar face at the workshop was Santa Cruz’s Downtown Streets Team Project Manager Brooke Newman, who shared about the team’s work to support a healthier lower San Lorenzo River and helped to dispel misconceptions about causes, costs and impacts of homelessness.

Coastal Watershed Council (CWC) River Scientist Whitney Reynier presented CWC’s work to the elected officials, regulators and fellow non-profit organizations in attendance. Whitney shared CWC’s water quality work, which is focused on reducing human-caused bacteria in the San Lorenzo River watershed. CWC has collaborated with water quality experts and stormwater specialists from the City of Santa Cruz Water Department and Public Works Department, Santa Cruz County Public Works and Environmental Health Services, Surfrider Foundation, and the Central Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board to investigate and better understand the extent and source of bacterial impairments in the San Lorenzo River. Whitney shared how bacteria source testing in varying hydrological conditions in 2014 and 2016 revealed that while bacteria affecting the lower San Lorenzo River is predominantly from avian (bird) contributions, bacteria from humans is found particularly near the confluence of Branciforte and Carbonera Creeks in the City of Santa Cruz. With this knowledge, the group identified and prioritized best management practices (BMPs) to address human-caused sources of bacteria in the watershed. The resulting BMP priority list is a guiding document of CWC’s work for a cleaner, healthier San Lorenzo River every day.

Specifically regarding homelessness, the Coastal Watershed Council is:

Shaping a constructive public narrative through public programming.

CWC works with thousands of youth, adults and local businesses and community groups at the river every year. With volunteers, CWC acknowledges the challenges of homelessness in a watershed context while recognizing human suffering and the need for human dignity. CWC encourages every person to take responsibility for their own role in water quality rather than pointing the finger and blaming those experiencing homelessness. We all have a role to play in reducing non-point source pollution.

Acting as a voice for the river in non-traditional venues.

CWC is not an expert on homelessness, but we strive to be in conversation with those who are. CWC staff and board members sit on committees and serve on boards with decision makers who will be designing and implementing responses to Santa Cruz’s homelessness crisis. CWC is often the only environmental organization in the room. We make sure the river is included in these bigger-scale planning and policy conversations and always push for solutions that are pro-river and pro-people.

Inviting those experiencing homelessness to be part of the solution.

CWC has collaborated with members of the Downtown Streets Team to improve river habitat, support neighborhood cleanups, monitor water quality and participate in river-based community events. This collaboration not only supports a healthier river, but fosters opportunities for dialogue between all members of our Santa Cruz community. As an environmental organization, we welcome anyone who wants to take action for a healthier river.

As success stories from other areas show, what’s good for people is good for the river. Enhanced access to housing, sanitation services and health services for those experiencing homelessness should support both a healthier river and a thriving Santa Cruz Community. In Santa Cruz, there are hundreds of people working every day to support those experiencing homelessness in finding sustainable pathways to housing and to address systemic challenges related to homelessness. While the path forward will continue to be challenging, CWC is proud to be at the table and continue to work for sustainable solutions that are both pro-people and pro-river.

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