Santa Cruz’s infamous lagoon is about to be upgraded

Santa Cruz – For more than a century, the estuary of the San Lorenzo River has been a place for locals to swim, fish, and relax, before two ferries replaced the river forever.

Since the jetty was built in the early ’60s during the construction of the Santa Cruz Small Craft Harbor, however, sand has accumulated at the mouth of the river and formed a lagoon on Santa Cruz’s iconic Main Beach near the Beach Boardwalk. When the water gets too high, the basement of the boardwalk is flooded and the lagoon ruptures, purging fish and creating unsafe currents for swimmers and other beach-goers.

After decades of band-aid solutions and debates over what to do about the problem, the city of Santa Cruz will begin work on a $2.8 million project later this year to help build a low-flow outlet of water through the lagoon. To stabilize the water level. starts growing.

“The project is a flood control project, a public safety project and a housing protection project all rolled into one,” said Scott Ruble, principal analyst with the city’s Public Works Department.

This venture aims to manage the shifting sand that once flowed downstream but is now trapped by the Western Ghats, causing sand to widen Seabright Beach and accumulate near the boardwalk.

“The upside was that we have these big, beautiful wide beaches that we all enjoy and that are part of our tourist attraction,” Ruble said. “But the downside is that it has changed the natural conditions.”

Up and down the California coast, beaches near ports have suffered from similar diseases stemming from the construction of jetties designed to protect the harbor from Pacific waves. So Santa Cruz’s first-of-its-kind project could eventually serve as an environmental model for other cities and towns in California.

In many ways, the San Lorenzo River and the San Lorenzo Lagoon are inseparable. The river terminates in the lagoon during the dry season, when there is not enough water to prevent sandbars from forming. And flood control banks along the river determine the flow of water through the city centre.

“The river is in the center of the city,” said project advisor Gary Griggs, a professor of Earth and planetary sciences at UC Santa Cruz. “And that’s been a big factor for more than a century, as far as how the city is built, why it’s flooded, how it’s rebuilt.”

During the dry summer months, the river is cut off from the sea by a sandbar that connects Seabright and the main beaches, forming a lagoon. A mix of river and sea water, the lagoon turns brackish, providing an ideal hangout for federally threatened steelhead trout and the endangered tidewater goby, a small fish that burrows into the sand.

But when the fall and winter rains arrive, the water level of the lagoon rises, the river backs up and the boardwalk soaks up the basement, which is used to store tools.

Chris Reyes, a longtime spokesman for the Santa Cruz Seaside Company, owner of the boardwalk, said the company has spent more than $250,000 on pumps and waterproofing during the past decade to fight floodwaters. And the city spends about $1,000 each time digging a trench to release the lagoon’s water into the ocean—which becomes necessary a dozen times each year.

Reyes said he is excited to see the city move forward with a long-term solution.

“For many years, it wasn’t really managed at all,” Reyes said. “It was completely hands-off. And that was not a sustainable approach.”

And this created a dangerous situation.

Parents and their young children and other inexperienced swimmers often spend time in the lagoon because the water is relatively shallow, with no crashing waves. But stagnant water and high levels of bacteria cause staph and hepatitis A infections.

However, the most significant danger comes when the waters of the lagoon break through the ocean.

The breaches occur in two situations: one is a natural rift in which the water of the lagoon rises over the sandbar, protecting the lagoon from the sea. The second is an unnatural violation by people, intentionally or unintentionally.

Griggs said both residents and tourists often think it is safe to swim or swim in the lagoon and that the currents will not be strong. But that doesn’t happen often.

“What starts as a small trickle can become a river in full force,” he said.

Captain Dara Herrick of the Santa Cruz Fire Department’s Maritime Safety Department said the lagoon was breached by children digging small channels through the sandbar, which eventually caused water to burst through the sandbar, sending lifeguards off the beach. needs to be taken out.

Surfers sometimes illegally breach the lagoon to create better surf conditions temporarily. But according to the Public Works Department’s Ruble, the most common breach occurs when local residents who live upstream dig through sandbars to release water into the ocean to try to prevent flooding.

In May, a San Jose man and his two children were pulled from the ocean 200 yards from the main beach after an unauthorized breach of unknown cause swayed the family into the ocean.

Hai Pham, 50, was found unconscious and later died in hospital. One of the Santa Cruz Fire Department’s rescue swimmers was also hospitalized after recovering from hypothermia and extreme exhaustion.

Whether the breach is natural or not, Herrick said, the lagoon’s water release is dangerous. “The conditions you are seeing now may not be the conditions you see in five minutes, 10 minutes or half an hour,” he said.