David Shaw wants Santa Cruz to improve water conservation and save its rivers.

David Shaw wants Santa Cruz to improve water conservation and save its rivers.

The walk to the San Lorenzo River from David Shaw’s backyard is surrounded by banana, avocado and bamboo trees that have all turned yellow from frost damage after one of the driest, coldest fall seasons the county has ever seen.

“We’re having uncertainty with our weather—which can be normal,” Shaw says as he unlocks a gate that leads from his Santa Cruz house on Ocean Street Extension to the river. “But certainly there’s a lot of signs we’re having global climate weirding going on.”

Unpredictable weather patterns make for unreliable rainfall. And that can make for an unreliable water supply—at least without careful planning. The dilemma ties into a series called Restore the Watershed that Shaw is organizing this weekend at UCSC to discuss ways to protect Santa Cruz’s rivers and conserve water.

A couple years ago, climate change and fear of dry spells were cornerstones of the city water department’s commitment to study desalination in hopes of increasing the town’s water supply in dry years. But now that city officials have decided to put those plans on hold once the environmental impact report is finished, the threat of very dry years is not going away.

As he and I walk across a narrow tree trunk bridge over the San Lorenzo River, Shaw explains that in normal winters there is more than enough rainfall to get Santa Cruz through the year. In order to restore the watershed in Santa Cruz, he says people need to both cut back on pollution and the amount of water they’re draining from reservoirs and streams.

“This is the watershed we’re talking about. I’m sitting here in a sandy wash in the middle of the San Lorenzo River. In many years, this is underwater right now,” Shaw says. “On one level, watershed restoration means me coming down here and picking up trash. But on another level it means all the properties that are in this watershed doing what they can to catch water on the landscape—in swales, in tanks, in ponds.”

To reduce water use, Shaw wants to see more Santa Cruzans install rooftop rain catchment systems and composting toilets—he says the best of the latter are similar to outhouses. He says residents need to reduce consumption and store the rain when it comes. This might be no easy task: the City of Santa Cruz and Soquel Creek Water District have both been recognized by the state for conservation. For years as it pursued desal, the department wrote off conservation measures as not being ambitious enough to offset the area’s water demand. With desalination on hold, though, conservation methods look like the way of the future—at least for now.

Shaw’s three-day Restore the Watershed event kicks off Friday, Jan. 10 at Kresge Town Hall with a presentation called “Basins of Relations” by UCSC grad Brock Dolman from the Occidental Arts and Ecology Center in Sonoma County.

“No water, no life,” Dolman says. “We live on this amazing planet that some of us think is better called Planet Water than it is Planet Earth because that’s really what’s uniquely amazing.” (Dolman and Shaw both sign their emails “Mostly water.”)

Saturday will feature a history presentation about the San Lorenzo River at Calvary Episcopal Church Fellowship Room.Sunday Shaw and Dolman will lead a $100 workshop on watershed restoration and permaculture.

Over the last six months, Santa Cruz received just 10 percent of its average July-December rainfall. If Santa Cruz has a third consecutive dry year, the county could be in a tough spot as far as water supply goes.

When it does rain, Shaw says we need to do a better job of storing water or letting it soak into the ground before letting it all run down the gutter.

“The rain hits the roof and goes down the downspout to drainage that just takes it right out to the ocean. We’re not infiltrating it, we’re just plumbing right out to the ocean, this fresh water from the sky. We don’t have a water shortage in Santa Cruz. We have a water storage shortage. Now this year’s a little different. We’re actually having a water shortage as well,” Shaw says, pointing to the sky. “Which happens.”

For more information about Restore the Watershed, visit