Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Navigating the Mighty Coyote Creek in San Jose

Advocates at Earthjustice today called on Congress to fix the Clean Water Act by eliminating the legislative loophole restricting the US EPA to only protect "Navigable Waters,"

Bush's Supreme Court had given his administration the legal basis to ignore water pollution at thousands of wetlands, streams and lakes and groundwater basins. A new bill has been introduced, called the Clean Water Restoration Act, which removes the word "navigable" and replaces the words "waters of the United States".

I noticed the Santa Clara Valley Water District has now begun to refer to the Coyote Creek as navigable. We are certainly witness to the flotilla of canoes launched under the smiling blessings of Admiral Spillman and her crew of trash photographers and recovery personnel. The next trash raft attack is scheduled for the weekend of March 1 if you care to join the war on creek trash.

But I have had personal knowledge that the Coyote Creek is navigable, acquired in the best possible manner, when Dan O'Brien and I ran the river at twilight one crazy evening in the winter of 1978. Dan & I were then young bucks in our early 30's, and tended to do outrageous stuff on a mere suggestion.
We were sitting on his deck at 311 Brookwood, Dan playing his guitar, watching a flood wave crest through the river as the sun was just about to set. Dan started playing "Dueling Banjos," the theme song from that infamous movie, "Deliverance". This adventure movie put running rapids into a whole new category. It also gave dam builders a slight reduction in the number of activists trying to stop dam building. Large dams usually inundate and destroy miles of rapids available for adventurous folks to challenge the river with their rafting skills.

But it didn't deter us when our testosterone-filled brains decided we needed to get to Mel Cotton's Sporting Goods store before they closed so we could purchase a six-foot inflatable raft and a couple of paddles. The good news is we made it to the store on time. The bad news was that the sun had already set by the time we got the raft home and inflated and were ready to launch our maniacal selves into the river at flood stage.

But the rain and river gods and goddesses wanted us to run the river this evening, as low clouds from the current storm hung low enough over the valley so that they effectively reflected enough street light on the creek that we could see where we were going. Beside getting the boat, our only other preparation was that we also told Dan's neighbor, Don Mathias, what we were up to and asked if he'd be willing to come get us if we were to survive this mad adventure.

So off we went down the river. The inflatable raft was sea worthy enough, although we would soon find out that only luck would keep us from getting flushed out of the creek and into San Francisco Bay. For the next two hours we paddled hard to steer the raft down the river, moving at about 10-12 feet per second, stopping again and again to portage around downed trees lying completely across the water.

The most beautiful memory of all this came as we passed one large tree growing near the bank that had about 25 white herons roosting for the night. Most of them saw us coming and took flight and flew around us as we passed their lodging and then resettled in to the tree as we floated by. Crazy humans!

Just as we were passing the Flea Market near Berryessa Road, we punctured the raft on one of the million twigs and branches we had floated by in the last three miles of the floodway, and this proved that the gods and goddesses were watching out for us during our nutty urban river rafting adventure.

We climbed out of the river soaked and covered with dirt and debris and knocked on the door of the San Jose Meat Company that was opposite the creek from the Flea Market and asked to use their phone to call Don for a ride. I think the people working that shift would not have dared to say no to these two wild men standing dripping at their door. I just hope we didn't contaminate any sanitary areas that we walked through to use the phone. (This is one more reason why cell phones were invented, so crazies don't show up at your door to ask to use the phone.)

While waiting for our ride, I walked across Berryessa Road and looked downstream at the river. Upper Penetencia Creek has its confluence with Coyote right below this bridge, and the flow downstream was greatly increased on north side of the road. But since agriculture fields still existed in this historically floodable area instead of floodable urbanscape like it is today, the street lights that had illuminated our evening rafting trip were non-existent downstream of the confluence and all I saw was white water disappearing into a black abyss.

I realized if we had rafted under that bridge, we might have been carried all the way to the bay, probably under rather than on the water. But instead, I am here on this bright and shiny Wednesday watching the sun set across the Coyote and glad I am still here to be a witness to the fact that Coyote Creek is indeed a navigable waterway, and right here in the middle of downtown San Jose.

I also hope this story brings a smile to my dear water brother Dan O'Brien, who is undergoing spinal surgery today, repairing damage done to his younger self, either playing basketball or doing crazy shit like I have just described here.

Blessed Be!

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