Crews fight off San Lorenzo River to save Boardwalk


The stubborn San Lorenzo River continued Thursday to threaten Santa Cruz’ most iconic landmark, the Beach Boardwalk.

During the third day of steady rain, the river stayed off its normal course and ran parallel to the amusement park, threatening to undermine the structure as Boardwalk officials used bulldozers and other heavy equipment to build up sand berms and persuade the river to turn toward the sea.

“It was good we did the work we did when we did it,” Boardwalk spokesman Marq Lipton said. “If the water had gone any further, there would have been significant damage.”

A berm helped push some flowing water to the ocean, preventing it from scouring at a concrete retaining wall that separates the historic amusement park from the beach. The park, which dates back to 1907, and its 88-year-old Giant Dipper roller coaster has suffered no serious damage so far.

But some Rio del Mar neighbors dealing with a similar situation are scratching their heads, wondering how the Santa Cruz Seaside Co., which owns the Boardwalk, was able to act quickly when they’ve been navigating more than a half-dozen state and federal agencies to try to solve a similar problem.

“If we’re going to have man and nature coexist, we need to sometimes strike a balance,” said David LaVelle, a civil engineer who owns property along Beach Drive in Aptos. “And it seems if you’re a powerful group like the Boardwalk, it gets a little easier to strike a balance.”

According to Santa Cruz Public Works officials, the Seaside Co. is allowed to do the work necessary to protect the property without permits from the city or state because of its emergency status. Public Works officials say they’ve been in contact with representatives from the California Coastal Commission to discuss the work under way.

“As long as they’re working to protect their property under this emergency condition, they’re well within their rights,” Public Works Director Mark Dettle said Thursday. “We’re monitoring the situation.”

But that is apparently not the case in Aptos, where neighbors had to obtain a provisional emergency permit from the California Coastal Commission – attached with conditions some neighbors considered onerous – before the river breached naturally before causing any damage.

“It’s just a hook,” Supervisor Ellen Pirie said of the permit, frustrated with the situation and wondering why it was so easy for the Boardwalk to move a river. She would like to see a permanent solution for Aptos homeowners. “Fortunately it breached, but we’ll be in this position again.”

Lipton said Boardwalk officials talked with representatives with Santa Cruz County and the state Department of Fish and Game regarding work on the beach to protect the physical structure.

“Given the gravity and immediacy of the situation, we had to do what we needed to do keep the Boardwalk safe and avert further damage,” he said.

While the San Lorenzo River turned north, this week’s rains helped turn Aptos Creek into a south-flowing river that passed directly behind homes before it finally breached, dropping the creek level about 6 feet and halting any further scour. What’s left is a precipitous, 8-foot drop just off the popular rentals’ rear patios.

But over the years, Aptos neighbors have had to work with the county, the state Department of Fish and Game, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the National Marine Fisheries Service, the California Coastal Commission, California State Parks and the State Lands Commission.

A group of homeowners recently formed the Rio del Mar Beach and Lagoon Conservancy, seeking to protect their property, but also ensure beach access for one of the most popular beaches in the county – the creek often cuts in front of the main entrance – and improve the lagoon for fish, particularly steelhead and tidewater goby.

In the past few months, that group has raised and spent more than $30,000 to address the problem.

“We are committed to solving this long-term problem and finding a long-term solution to this meandering creek,” said Bill Comfort, president of the Rio del Mar Improvement Association.

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