Not many people knew about the Coyote Creek watershed before Deb Kramer began leading a local effort to protect it. Now, Coyote Creek and the nonprofit dedicated to its preservation are setting the standard for environmental advocacy in the South Bay Area.
Kramer took the reins at Keep Coyote Creek Beautiful in 2014 and has since expanded the group to include two thousand volunteers, turning them into stewards for their local environment through clean ups, bike rides, hikes, and educational outreach.
“My message to people is that Coyote Creek is an amazing natural resource that deserves a lot of care and love from the whole community,” Kramer said.
The “creek” is technically a 64-mile long river, with a watershed running from the Diablo Range on east side of the San Francisco Bay, through the oak forests and grasslands surrounding Morgan Hill, San Jose and Milpitas, as well as through the cities’ urban areas and into San Francisco Bay. More than half a million people live in its watershed.
Kramer, 55, is now almost synonymous with the organization, but it was long before joining Coyote Creek that she caught the bug for environmental stewardship.
“Starting in the 70s when the environmental movement got going, I bought into it hook, line and sinker,” Kramer said. As she grew up in the Bay Area, she said severe droughts, heavy rainfall and the 1970s oil crisis in particular continued to make an impression on her.
After studying environmental science at the University of California, Berkeley, Kramer went on to work at software companies, including Oracle, then worked at Acterra, a Bay Area nonprofit doing work in environmental education, sustainability and conservation.
In the beginning
When she started leading clean up events in her early days at the nonprofit, Kramer and her volunteers were removing thousands of pounds of trash, much of it “legacy” trash that had been there for decades. The group found 8-track tapes and other dated debris that obviously had been there a while.
While the clean-ups have been an integral part of the group, Kramer has helped create other programs that sustain educational and outreach efforts. Keep Coyote Creek Beautiful hosts bicycle rides and hikes on trails throughout the watershed, as well as “BioBlitz” events where participants volunteer to identify and track wildlife in the area.
Kramer herself has partnered with San Jose State University on a yearly basis to develop projects to help promote the river. This year she’s working with students on virtual hikes for different areas of the watershed in an effort to get more residents engaged with the area who might not otherwise be interested or involved.
Alie Victorine, a veteran volunteer with the nonprofit, says Kramer is the perfect leader for Keep Coyote Creek Beautiful.
“She’s really good about not taking credit,” said Victorine, a San Jose District 7 resident and teacher. “She does all the work and then says it’s a team effort. She has received many awards, but she has not accepted an award where she has not invited us (volunteers) to join her and bask in her glory.”
What makes Kramer an especially good leader, Victorine said, is she knows how to create more leaders. Kramer encouraged Victorine to go from volunteering to leading birding outings several times a year in her nearby Hellyer Park.
“I might be the orchestrator, but there are so many people that are playing in the symphony that makes this organization well known and well respected,” Kramer said.
Kramer also set an example and gained a reputation for being an expert on Coyote Creek.
After devastating flooding in 2017, San Jose leaders knew they needed to clean up the watershed. So they turned to Kramer. In the four days following the flooding, nearly 1,200 volunteers turned out to collect the trash and debris that had washed up.
“It was quite a feat,” Kramer said. “I’m amazed at how people rallied around that creek.”
If people hadn’t heard of Coyote Creek then, Kramer said, they definitely knew what it was now.
An ever-changing landscape
Katherine Cushing, a professor of environmental science at San Jose State University and executive director of CommUniverCity, has known Kramer for about 10 years.
Coyote Creek and its watershed are vital to the community, Cushing said. It’s also impaired in that it suffers from dams, pollutions and development that has choked its floodplains and channels. In addition, the creek bed serves as a refuge for many unhoused people in the county, making the task of protecting it more complicated.
“Deb and Keep Coyote Creek Beautiful do a good job of being respectful of (the unhoused) population and wanting to advocate for the rights of that population but at the same time making sure the waterway stays clean,” Cushing said.
“Deb doesn’t have to do this. She has lots of skills and she could be in the private sector,” Cushing said. “But she chooses to do this and it’s her passion that inspires others to do their best.”
While COVID-19 shutdowns have continued, Kramer has not let that derail her work. She’s continuing to work with San Jose State students, this year on a project to create a virtual tour of Hellyer Park. She’s also found ways to continue other events in a smaller format or virtually.
“She’s been pretty clear headed about what she wants to do,” Cushing said. “That’s especially important in an environmental leader in this time when physical community engagement is hard.”
“She just figures out what to do and she does it. We can all learn from Deb,” Cushing said.
The pandemic has had detrimental effects on the health of the Coyote Creek watershed. As more unhoused people have sought shelter along the waterway, litter has increased, as well as fires and erosion from heavy travel.
“The quality of the water has decreased significantly,” Kramer said. “I haven’t tested it, but if you look at the water it’s really grey. I can’t see anything moving that’s living in it.”
For Kramer, the pandemic restrictions mean the group needs to adapt. And she’s preparing herself for that post-COVID-19, whenever that may be.
Victorine, the volunteer and teacher, says Kramer’s impact goes further than just the nonprofit and its group of volunteers.
“(The group has) benefited the community because our city leaders are aware of the problem,” Victorine said. More people are familiar with the creek, and the intersection between creek health, homelessness, and public health. “(Councilmember) Maya Esparza and (Mayor) Sam Liccardo have been on clean-ups with us. The Parks and Rec department workers know the volunteers. It makes us a community.”