Over the years, the Coastal Watershed Council (CWC) has brought thousands of Santa Cruz County students on field trips to study, appreciate and learn about the San Lorenzo River. In the classroom, students explore the benefits of clear water and native plants and ways we can reduce the chance of trash entering the San Lorenzo River. They might watch videos from CWC’s YouTube channel or make observations from photos of the San Lorenzo River, too. 

However, when students, teachers and chaperones arrive at the Santa Cruz Riverwalk for a field trip, it’s not uncommon for a CWC Environmental Educator to overhear first-reaction comments about the river water appearing murky, about the gross green blobs of muck and, of course, trash they see in the water or on the riverbanks. I’m guessing some of you reading this article now might have the same reaction. 

 It’s go time! During a field trip to the San Lorenzo River, Watershed Rangers measure water transparency to discover that the water is actually pretty clear up-close, especially when it’s not against the background of the riverbed’s brown sand.

A Boys and Girls Club Watershed Ranger tests water transparency

Binoculars in hand, students observe many birds: kingfishers, hawks, herons, osprey (commonly called seahawks) and many species of ducks. What are the ducks doing under the water bobbing around with their butts in the air? They’re eating that green muck! It’s algae, which is the base of the aquatic food web and is mostly naturally occurring. Students discover that the green muck is pretty important for a healthy river ecosystem!

Bird watching at the San Lorenzo River

Trash is a threat to water quality and natural habitat in virtually every river that flows through any city, including the San Lorenzo River in Santa Cruz. On a field trip, students observe nearby storm drains and local maps to realize that trash ends up in the San Lorenzo River even if its source is miles from the river itself. Watershed Rangers have campaigned on Pacific Avenue about pollution reduction and have led river clean-ups, complementing the work of Santa Cruz’s Downtown Streets Team.

Storm drains of Santa Cruz from https://gis.santacruzcounty.us/gisweb/ (storm drain overlay enabled)

After an action-packed hour, field trip attendees often leave with a new perspective of the lower San Lorenzo River and an increase in what’s called environmental literacyThrough exploration, students and adults have discovered that perceived problems with the San Lorenzo River may not actually be problems at all, while other issues, like trash in the water, can be alleviated through public education and community effort. 

Once you get to know the San Lorenzo River, it’s hard not to fall in love with it! Watershed Rangers field trips will continue to support how local youth think of the San Lorenzo River, their primary drinking water source and critical mountain-to-ocean corridor, and all the ways we as a community can protect and love the San Lorenzo River together. 

This work is made possible because of generous funding and support from Santa Cruz County CORE and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Thank you for the continued dedication to environmental education and strong, healthy communities.

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