Originally published December 12, 2022, updated on December 14, 2022, with results from City Council action

There have always been requirements to maintain the levees following specific protocols, since their construction by the Army Corps of Engineers in the 1950s. The requirements outline that landscape planting and vegetation management can provide aesthetic and environmental benefits, but must not compromise the reliability of flood control facilities. However, different agencies can have different approaches to how they read and enforce these requirements.

After the management of the levees was transferred from the Army Corps to the City of Santa Cruz, certifying engineers required by Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), rather than the Army Corps itself will now monitor and accredit the flood control structure. The City of Santa Cruz has a mandate to comply with FEMA’s requirements for a well-functioning levee system. Yet there are different ways to meet those requirements as established working with the Army Corps of Engineers.

The details of this change were released to the public prior to the Santa Cruz City Council Meeting on December 13, 2022, alongside a scope of work and qualifications required for a new contract to reduce vegetation along the San Lorenzo River levee between the paved Riverwalk path and the street. The change is so that when waters rise, City staff can observe if there is any leakage. However, the details of the project were vague and allowed significant vegetation reduction without protection for the existing habitat value along the Riverwalk.

The Coastal Watershed Council mobilized and Santa Cruzans sent in over 75 emails, letters, calls and council meeting comments. These public comments focused on maintaining all allowable vegetation along the San Lorenzo River, clearing only what is necessary to comply with this mandate and ensure the safety of our community.

As a result, City of Santa Cruz staff recommended amendments to its project scope and qualifications for its upcoming vegetation management project along the San Lorenzo River, which were approved by City Council during the meeting. These changes increase protections for river habitat while keeping to the timeline and requirements to ensure FEMA certification of the San Lorenzo River levee system and flood protection for riverside neighborhoods. Specifically, the changes CWC and your community advocated for included:

Amended Appendix A of the San Lorenzo Flood Control Project Federal Emergency Management Agency Accreditation Vegetation Management Project to ensure stronger protections for existing habitat and vegetation. Specifically, the new amendments will now require:

  • Revegetation to use native plants to provide the best possible biodiversity and habitat value.
  • Only hand tools be used, which allows for more attention to ecological needs when conducting vegetation management work.
  • Oversight and training from qualified environmental experts. These experts will ensure:
    • Appropriate trimming of trees and shrubs. No trees will be removed for this project.
    • Work crews monitor and adapt activity to sensitive species, including nesting birds.

Added ecological competencies in the scope of work for contractor bids, specifically requesting contractors be certified as:

  • Certified Ecological Restoration Practitioner (CERP) and/or
  • Certified Natural Resources Professional (CNRP)

The challenge of managing an urban river is balancing its many needs and benefits for our community. By balancing flood protection and habitat needs, we can have a thriving urban riverfront where all Santa Cruzans can connect to nature in their daily lives! Thank you to all of those who spoke up – for your time and action on this important matter!

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