‘We’ve turned our backs on the river’: Laurie Egan works to revive, transform the San Lorenzo River

Laurie Egan in front of her office off of Dakota Avenue.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

As she takes over as executive director of the Coastal Watershed Council, Laurie Egan wants to integrate the San Lorenzo River into city life — and wants the community to embrace the river’s possibilities.

Laurie Egan, the Coastal Watershed Council’s (CWC) new executive director, was not allowed to touch the Housatonic River that ran down the street from her childhood home in Western Massachusetts. Everyone told her 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 that space.”

Laurie Egan

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

Seeing the plants, animals, and native wildlife changed her outlook and set her on her course as an environmentalist determined to showcase underappreciated natural resources.

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

Egan, 32, has spent the last nine years working for CWC where she has held numerous positions including outreach and development manager and programs director. She came to Santa Cruz shortly after she got a BS in environmental analysis — a math-focused environmental science degree — from Harvey Mudd College in Claremont in 2012.

Greg Pepping, who served as CWC executive director from 2009 until Egan took over on March 21, embraces the leadership change and thinks Egan is the perfect 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 going forward,” he said.

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

“I’ve seen a really cool mixture of intelligence, drive, focus, and over-the-top positive energy,” he said. “She’s 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 new generation of leaders poised to take action.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

Laurie Egan holds up a dog waste dispenser
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Lookout: What have you done so far with CWC and what do you want to change?

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

So as we’re working for that healthier river, we think one of the best ways to do that is to get people to connect to 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 when it comes to the river, we’re continuing to focus on how we can keep that water clean, but also how we can enhance the habitat along the river channel and how we can improve the experience for visitors.

In the past, our effort has really focused on getting people to tune into this conversation and realize what the river could be for this community. We’re at the point now, and in the years ahead, where people are going to start seeing those changes realized. Everything from the developments coming to the riverfront to the habitat enhancement that CWC has been leading, and even that community conversation shifting.

Lookout: We’ve heard plenty of rumblings about those developments. What are some specific initiatives or tangible changes at the forefront?

Egan: When you think about cities across the county, or even the globe, every city is built on a river, and many of them have thriving urban riverfronts. You see that the rivers are really integrated into the fabric of the community. Housing, businesses, and transportation are all linked to their waterways and we’ve really been missing that in Santa Cruz. The buildings along Front Street and downtown face away from the riverfront. So, we’ve both literally and figuratively turned our backs on our river.

A few years back, when the city was updating its downtown plan, CWC advocated that any new buildings built along the river incorporate the riverwalk into their design. Today that’s starting to happen. There’s going to be a series of developments along Front Street where you’ll be able to step from the [San Lorenzo] Riverwalk path onto a patio and community space. Those designs will be between downtown and the river, so they won’t touch between the Riverwalk and the water’s edge. That area, right now, has plants and habitat in that space.

The problem is that a lot of those plants are introduced species like ice plant or Himalayan blackberries. They’re these monoliths that don’t really offer very much habitat value. Again, with CWC’s focus on the environment and how people interact with the space, we have programs we call our River Health Day program where we go out and remove those introduced species. In exchange, we plant a variety of native plants in their place which increases biodiversity and improves the habitat quality for the birds, bugs, fish and wildlife that rely on that space. Also, of course, it’s very aesthetically pleasing for people, and it will allow people to engage and appreciate the space.

Laurie Egan enjoys the view of the San Lorenzo River from her office.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

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

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

There’s a focus on public-private spaces so that people can enjoy the river. Think Abbott Square. That’s a public-private space that we’ve seen work really well in Santa Cruz. Developments like that are, right now, required as part of that investment in the Riverwalk. So, CWC sees that advocacy work that we did as a really important and specific role.

Lookout: We’ve heard the alleyways between Front Street and Pacific Avenue will be widened and renovated. Explain that a little and talk a bit about any other infrastructure plans in the works.

Egan: This is actually similar to the public-private space idea. So, as there will be development on Front Street, there will be breaks in between the new buildings, and within those, there will be access points for the Riverwalk itself. So, right now, if you stand on Pacific Avenue and try to look over the Riverwalk, you probably won’t be able to see it. The idea of those breaks in between buildings and having small parklets in those 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 looks enticing.

Another project is a city of Santa Cruz-led project looking into installing a culvert pipe [corrugated drain pipe] at the mouth of the San Lorenzo River. Right now, when a sandbar forms across the river mouth, the water levels back up and there’s flooding that happens under the levees. That impacts downtown Santa Cruz homes in the lower Ocean and Beach Flats neighborhoods. One of the things the city is working on for this project is to address the water levels in a way that benefits fish and wildlife habitat. Construction will get going this year.

Egan pointing out features of the coastal watershed
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Lookout: When people see the work you plan, they might start to realize that there’s more to the river and our waterways than we have realized. Is that your goal?

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

I grew up in Western Massachusetts along the Housatonic River, which was just down the street from my house, but it was polluted with chemicals in the decades before I was born. People always said not to touch the water because it’s dirty and you’ll get sick. There was this real fear that our community had around that space.

Then, when I was in fourth grade, I went on a canoe trip organized by my school and that really sparked a lot of my interest and that shift in thinking happened for me. Understanding that there were birds, frogs and all sorts of cool wildlife in the river. I thought about it differently for my whole life after that.

Lookout: You are a member of a new generation of leaders — one that’s younger and more diverse. How will this cohort approach their work differently?

Egan: It’s really exciting to be taking the reins. I love this work and I’ve loved it over the past nine years. When I think about some of the conversations that I’ve had with other folks that are stepping into similar roles, whether it’s in nonprofit or for-profit industries, intersectionality comes up frequently.

Our work, no matter what sector or space that you’re in, really intersects with so many other things happening in the surrounding communities. Lots of new leaders are thinking about how their day-to-day work or company’s mission intersects with things like community health or urban development or public spaces and that, I think, is a somewhat different approach than perhaps some of our predecessors had. I think the shifts had started to happen, but I think that’s sort of a new influx that you’ll begin to see with a new generation of leaders.

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