“We turned our backs on the river”: Laurie Egan works to revive, transform the San Lorenzo River

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Laurie Egan, the new executive director of the Coastal Watershed Council (CWC), was not allowed to touch the Housatonic River which flowed down the street from her childhood home in western Massachusetts. Everyone told him the river was dangerous.

“It was always the story of, you know, the water is dirty and you’ll get sick if you touch it,” she said. “There was this real fear that our community had around this space.”

But when she was in fourth grade, she went canoeing with her school and discovered the beauty of the river.

Seeing native plants, animals and wildlife changed her perspective and set her on her path as an environmentalist determined to enhance undervalued natural resources.

The San Lorenzo River, she says, is a perfect candidate.

Egan, 32, has spent the past nine years working for CWC where she has held many positions including Outreach and Development Manager and Director of Programs. She arrived in Santa Cruz shortly after earning a BS in environmental analysis — a math-focused environmental science degree — from Harvey Mudd College in Claremont in 2012.

Greg Pepping, who served as the CWC’s executive director from 2009 until Egan took over on March 21, embraces the change in leadership and believes Egan is the right person for the job.

“The next 12 years will be different from the last 12 years and Laurie is the best person for the new challenges and opportunities that CWC, the river and the community will face in the future,” he said.

Pepping added that she had all the qualities of a successful leader.

“I saw a really cool mix of intelligence, drive, focus and over-the-top positive energy,” he said. “She is diligent, process-oriented and caring.”

Egan spoke with Lookout about her big plans for the riverfront, how she wants to connect the community to the San Lorenzo River, and the next generation of leaders ready to take action.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

Laurie Egan wields a poop dispenser

Laurie Egan wields a poop dispenser

(Kevin Painchaud / Belvedere Santa Cruz)

Lookout: What have you done so far with CWC and what would you like to change?

Laurie Egan: Since our founding in 1995, we’ve been truly focused on improving the quality of the water and the watersheds that connect to the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary. Clean water has always been our roots. It has continued for this organization as we focus on the lower San Lorenzo River and work for a clean and healthy river, and throughout my time here it has extended to how the community interacts with this space.

As we work for this healthier river, we believe one of the best ways to do this is to get people to connect with this space, just like we do with our oceans and redwoods. We have this ethic of care and stewardship because we know and love these places. So in terms of the river, we continue to focus on how we can keep that water clean, but also how we can improve the habitat along the river channel and how we can improve the visitor experience.

In the past, our efforts have really focused on getting people to listen to this conversation and realize what the river could be for this community. We’re at the point now, and in the years to come, where people are going to start seeing these changes come to fruition. Everything from the upcoming riverside developments, to the home improvement that CWC has led, and even this changing community conversation.

Lookout: We’ve heard a lot of rumors about these developments. What are the specific initiatives or tangible changes at the forefront?

Egan: When you think of cities in the county, or even the world, every city is built on a river, and many of them have thriving urban banks. You see the rivers are really integrated into the fabric of the community. Housing, businesses and transportation are all tied to their waterways and we really missed that in Santa Cruz. Buildings along Front Street and downtown face the riverfront. So, literally and figuratively, we turned our backs on our river.

A few years ago, when the city was updating its downtown plan, the CWC advocated that any new building constructed along the river incorporate the river walk into its design. Today it is starting to happen. There will be a series of developments along Front Street where you can go from the [San Lorenzo] Riverwalk path leading to patio and community space. These designs will be between downtown and the river, so they will not touch between the Riverwalk and the waterfront. This area, right now, has plants and habitat in this space.

The problem is that many of these plants are introduced species like the ice plant or the Himalayan blackberries. It’s those monoliths that don’t really offer much habitat value. Again, with CWC’s focus on the environment and how people interact with space, we have programs that we call our river health day program where we go out and remove these introduced species. In return, we plant a variety of native plants in their place, which increases biodiversity and improves the quality of habitat for the birds, insects, fish and wildlife that depend on this space. Plus, of course, it’s very aesthetically pleasing to people, and it will allow people to engage and enjoy the space.

Laurie Egan enjoys the view of the San Lorenzo River from her office.

Laurie Egan enjoys the view of the San Lorenzo River from her office.

(Kevin Painchaud / Belvedere Santa Cruz)

Lookout: What will CWC’s direct role be in the redevelopment of Front Street/Laurel Street?

Egan: I mentioned the advocacy work the organization did around changes to the downtown plan, and we saw that was one of the most direct roles we could play, and a very important one . That way it’s not a conversation with every developer interested in changing the riverfront, but it’s codified. So no matter who comes to work near the river, they will be committed to making the Riverwalk an essential part of the design. This will really serve us as plans move forward with different developments along the Riverwalk and designs incorporate the river.

The focus is on public-private spaces for people to enjoy the river. Think Abbott Square. It’s a public-private space that we’ve seen work very well in Santa Cruz. Developments like this are, at this time, needed as part of this investment in the Riverwalk. So CWC sees this advocacy work that we’ve done as a really important and specific role.

Attention: We have heard that the lanes between Front Street and Pacific Avenue will be widened and renovated. Explain that a bit and talk a bit about any other infrastructure plans going on.

Egan: This is actually similar to the idea of ​​public-private space. So, as there will be development on Front Street, there will be breaks between new buildings, and within these there will be access points for the Riverwalk itself. So right now, if you’re standing on Pacific Avenue and trying to look over the Riverwalk, you probably won’t be able to see it. The idea of ​​these breaks between buildings and having small parklets in these spaces will help change the way the river is integrated into downtown by making it clear that you can access the river in new places and it seems attractive.

Another project is a project led by the city of Santa Cruz that plans to install a culvert pipe [corrugated drain pipe] at the mouth of the San Lorenzo river. Currently, when a sandbar forms at the mouth of the river, the water level rises and there are floods that occur under the levees. This is impacting downtown Santa Cruz homes in the lower Ocean and Beach Flats neighborhoods. One of the things we are working on for this project is to regulate water levels in a way that benefits fish and wildlife habitat. Construction will start this year.

Egan highlighting features of the coastal watershed

Egan highlighting features of the coastal watershed

(Kevin Painchaud / Belvedere Santa Cruz)

Warning: When people see the work you are planning, they might start to realize that the river and our waterways are more important than we thought. Is this your goal?

Egan: It’s one of the things I love about working on the San Lorenzo River. It’s really complex. He touches every opportunity and every challenge that Santa Cruz faces. In my role, I learn about development, engineering, climate resilience and community engagement. All of these pieces help shape a thriving riverside, and that’s what I love about this job. Every day can be a little different and it’s very collaborative. The work and the transformation that’s going to happen here along the lower river can only happen through these conversations to really make sure we’re thinking about habitat.

I grew up in western Massachusetts along the Housatonic River, which was right below my house, but it was polluted with chemicals in the decades before I was born. People always said don’t touch the water because it’s dirty and you get sick. There was this real fear that our community had around this space.

Then when I was in fourth grade I went on a canoe trip organized by my school and it really sparked a lot of interest and that mindset shift happened for me. Understand that there were birds, frogs and all kinds of wild animals in the river. I thought about it differently all my life after that.

Lookout: You are part of a new generation of leaders, younger and more diverse. How will this cohort approach their work differently?

Egan: It’s really exciting to take the reins. I love this job and have loved it for the past nine years. When I think back to some of the conversations I’ve had with others in similar roles, whether in nonprofit or for-profit sectors, intersectionality comes up frequently.

Our work, no matter what industry or space you’re in, really intersects with so much else that’s going on in the surrounding communities. Many new leaders think about how their day-to-day work or their company’s mission intersects with things like community health, urban development or public spaces and that, I think, is a somewhat different approach than some of our predecessors. I think the changes had started to happen, but I think it’s kind of a new influx that you’ll start to see with a new generation of leaders.

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