A 2006 project that began at Uvas Creek in Gilroy brought poker player-turned-environmentalist Herman Garcia into the fold of two controversial projects in San Benito County—the Betabel project and Strada Verde Innovation Park.
Garcia was given the keys to a property near Betabel Road off Highway 101 about 18 months ago as a sign of good faith from owner Rider McDowell that he intended to develop the property with a commercial project that would take the environment into account. While Garcia waited for a more concrete plan, including documentation on the project that he could officially support, he and volunteers with his nonprofit Coastal Habitat Education and Environmental Restoration (CHEER) spent time cleaning up the portion of the San Benito River that runs along the property.
Following an almost two-year process of hauling thousands of tons of trash that included 14 abandoned vehicles, two ski boats, and 420 tires, Garcia said steelhead trout returned to the San Benito River after an absence of at least 75 years.
“Steelhead trout are a key indicator species to our water quality and that means to our entire ecosystem,” Garcia said. “When you don’t have those fish, that means the ecosystem is broken, something is wrong and that can be anything.”
Local activist group Preserve Our Rural Communities (PORC) continues to spearhead a fight against development at the Betabel property. They have filed three lawsuits attempting to stop the property from being rezoned from agricultural to commercial. While the courts have ruled in favor of the county, one lawsuit is still pending regarding the California Environmental Quality Act.
Garcia’s maintenance efforts in that part of the river have brought him into contact with another controversial development effort. Proponents of Strada Verde project and Measure N on the Nov. 3 ballot are pushing for an autonomous vehicle testing campus along the Pajaro River and Highway 25.
Unlike the Betabel project, Garcia did reclamation work on the Pajaro River along the proposed Strada Verde site before the project was introduced. He’s been cleaning and maintaining the watershed from Highway 1 in Monterey County to the property where the Strada Verde project is proposed since 2014.
“On Strada Verde specifically, we took out over 500 tires, five boats, one row boat, three ski boats and one sailboat,” Garcia said of his first year cleaning that part of the river, adding that he’s also removed two stolen cars. “All that garbage was exposed with the drought.”
Garcia said he supports the Betabel and Strada Verde projects because both are taking into account the enhancement of the environment, which aligns with his efforts. In his work, he takes a strength-based approach toward habitat reclamation and restoration, fisheries rescue and restoration, intervention, prevention, education and enforcement.
Garcia said he signed a letter of intent in October with John Patterson, president and CFO of Newport Pacific Land Company, the developer behind Strada Verde, which states both parties will collaborate on all environmental issues. Newport Pacific is also the primary backer of the Yes on N campaign.
Garcia has several plans at the Strada Verde location for improving water quality, which include upgrading the stormwater and agricultural water runoff channels that go into the Pajaro River. He said this is in addition to the project’s proposed mitigations to impacts on the river’s water quality.
“We want to put in biological enhancements to the development project to protect the river from contaminants, whether they be storm drain or runoff from farming contaminated soil, or historical contaminants,” Garcia said.
The water channels nutrients, pesticides, lead sediments and other contaminants that negatively affect fish and wildlife habitat to the river, Garcia said. To avoid that, he wants all water to be treated prior to entering streams through natural treatment mechanisms.
To further improve the habitat, Garcia said he is looking at installing floating treatment islands. The islands are covered with plants that provide wildlife habitat while the roots slow water, provide food for young steelhead trout, trap sediments, and remove unwanted nutrients and dissolved contaminants.
Garcia founded CHEER in 2003 and partnered with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to reclaim and restore the Pajaro River Watershed habitat, which is located in four counties: Santa Clara, San Benito, Santa Cruz and Monterey. He said he is currently working on cleaning up the San Benito River near the Fourth Street bridge in Hollister.
“It’s all about water. It starts with water,” Garcia said. “We want to protect the water. We want to try to make the water quality better through our cutting-edge science.”
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