On a breezy Friday afternoon in May, my husband and I set off on a nature trip. Our destination: downtown Watsonville.
No, you didn't misread. We really did go on a nature trip, and this thriving central coast city of 50,000 was, surprisingly enough, the perfect place for a good dose of wildlife--of the wetland variety.
I can't count the number of times I've driven along Highway One and noticed the signs at the bridges: Watsonville Slough, Struve Slough, Harkins Slough. Then I'd see, flashing by, long fingers of still blue water dappled with rushes and reeds, the occasional great egret frozen in midstride. Each time I've passed these jewels, I've wondered whether they were accessible--for strolling, for bird-watching, for finding a bit of peace and quiet.
It turns out they are, but only since 2003. That's when the City of Watsonville launched a trail system aimed at bringing the city's residents into closer contact with the nature in their own backyards--quite literally. For set on higher land around these wetlands, which constitute the largest remaining freshwater wetland habitat remaining on the central coast--800 acres fed by the surrounding Pajaro River watershed--are mobile-home parks, single-family residences, apartment buildings, and condominium complexes, with new housing developments going up even as I write.
Urban settlement too often has a negative impact on wetlands. In Watsonville's case, however, a happier story is unfolding. By making these sloughs more accessible to local neighborhoods, Watsonville has seen a rise in public awareness and care for the environment. The notion of stewardship, as well of pride of place, is growing rapidly as residents participate in restoration projects, dispose of litter responsibly, and appreciate the ability to enjoy a peaceful stroll along a sloughside trail, binoculars in hand, go for a slow run or bike ride, or take the dog for a walk. "It's a safer place now," commented Michelle Templeton, coordinator of the Wetlands of Watsonville Nature Center, "because so many people are using the trails--joggers, bicyclists, groups of kids walking home from school. We're also seeing the areas around the sloughs staying cleaner. People have an investment now."
The trail system, most of which is wheelchair-accessible, eventually will comprise six miles of asphalt paths, boardwalk, and footbridges, with 29 access points in surrounding neighborhoods. At the moment, about four and a half miles have been completed. Some of the trails were built where informal dirt paths existed; these casual thoroughfares bespoke a need for better access between areas, and the City tried to respond to that need.