Herman Garcia seems an unlikely hero. His affable demeanor hides a hard-as-nails dedication to the environment and a fierce devotion to our precious local streams and rivers. He is an environmentalist with impeccable credentials and integrity.

Garcia’s story begins with him assisting law enforcement in breaking down the gangs that plagued Gilroy’s Monterey Street, where his father ran a card club and casino. It earned him a personal commendation from President George Bush as one of his “Thousand Points of Light” — as well getting himself shot twice and stabbed 27 times by criminals trying to stop him.

Garcia founded CHEER (Coastal Habitat Education Environmental Restoration), an organization dedicated to cleaning and restoring our important rivers, streams, wetlands, and watersheds. He’s rescued tens of thousands of fish, successfully taken major polluters and corporations to court in landmark decisions, and has brought life back to the waterways of San Benito and Santa Clara Counties

Garcia could ask for no greater ally than the Betabel Project. After buying this broken and damaged land, Garcia is one of the first people Rider McDowell called in for help. At that point, the land was an obvious eyesore to any commuter traveling Highway 101, with derelict buildings and junked cars covering the land. But hidden behind a thick line of native trees, the Pajaro River was in even worse condition.

“I met Rider out there and he asked me what I thought. I told him ‘I’d like to be able to take time to assess it and see what kind of issues you have with toxins, pollutants, fish passage issues, garbage, and sediment.”

Garcia says “I told McDowell ‘In the past, this land has been a dumping ground and I have to figure it out.’ And Rider said ‘here’s the combination to the lock. You can come out any time you want.”

And that is when CHEER stepped in to rescue the river.

“Once I went out there and saw all the damage, holy cow, I started bringing all my people out there immediately and we went right to work,” says Garcia.

The importance of this watershed can’t be understated. The Betabel Project is where the San Benito and Pajaro rivers meet and contains an important floodplain. Pollution and trash had long since killed off the natural life of these waters.

While the Betabel crews cleared the land of decades of junk on the site itself, Garcia was hauling out tons of garbage from the rivers, in a brand new trailer that McDowell helped him purchase.

“You can’t believe the amount of stuff we pulled out of that river, Garcia says. “At the beginning, my crew was pulling out three to five thousand pounds of garbage a day. Ridiculous amounts of garbage. We filled up our trucks and trailers every day. One day we would take it out of the Pajaro, the next day out of the San Benito, the next day cleaning out the floodplain.”

Garcia says “we were trying to get the worst spots first. Garbage attracts more garbage and these were high-risk areas. We cleaned up all the easily visible stuff and then we dug deeper.”

The first place Garcia scouted was the San Benito River. And the first thing he found was an illegal marijuana field. “This thing was nasty,” Garcia says. “There was garbage and rats – oh, what a mess! There was an irrigation system pulling water out of the rivers with filthy pipes and tubing. That was the first thing I attacked and I eradicated that mess.”

They expanded their effort from there but now, a year and a half later, CHEER is still not done. “This is a massive effort,” Garcia says. “and there is still a lot to do.”

The importance of restoring the Pajaro cannot be understated. At one point, in the surveys of American waterways and watersheds, the Pajaro was classed by the government as the most endangered river in the United States.

Garcia had been used to fighting for access to parts of the river in his efforts to save it from pollution and abuse. Getting free access to all parts of the property not only gave him the chance to repair the damage but also make plans for the future of this resource.

One thing Garcia is excited about is creating a River Walk, modeled on the successful walk near Christmas Hill Park in Gilroy that he helped create.

“I have already started designing the River Walk and am working on the interpretive signs. I am using that template for this project – it is very popular with people in Gilroy.”

Part of Garcia’s work was to assess the environmental impact of the Betabel Project on the watershed, particularly the floodplain.

“The greatest impact is the positive impact this development is having by allowing responsible stewardship of the land after it being abused for so long,” says Garcia. “We are able to come in here and repair it and reclaim it and bring it back to life.”

And he looks to the future as well. “The most important thing is that we have gotten a commitment to preserve this incredible place. This is going to be a safe and healthy area for the wildlife in the area and those who will come to visit it. This will be a refuge forever.”

Garcia questions PORC, the opponents of the Betabel Project, some of the members of which he considers friends. “Did they have a solution for reclaiming this natural resource and protecting it? No they didn’t. They never did so much as pick up a piece of litter. All they do is oppose, they don’t get out there and help.”

Garcia’s work at the Betabel Project made him a target of PORC as well. During their campaign against Betabel, Garcia was described as having “sold himself out to get access to the river.”

The idea makes Garcia laugh. “Sold out? I don’t need anything. I am doing it because it is the right thing. That’s how I’ve lived my whole life. I’ve never taken commissions or rewards for anything. Money? I’m not motivated by money. There is not enough money to buy me off.”

Garcia’s work at the Betabel Project halted in November when the rains set in, making the ground too muddy to drive his equipment through. But he is eager to return to the Betabel Project once the shelter in place order is lifted, to see how the rivers are doing, checking them for signs of renewed life, and finishing the work he started almost two years ago. For Garcia, helping the Betabel Project in its goal of being responsible stewards of the land, is just another day’s work. But for the community, it a chance to rediscover the watershed of the San Benito and Pajaro Rivers, natural beauty at its finest.

It is also a win-win, according to Garcia. “I support this project 100%. Why not? We’ve taken out most of the garbage. We are protecting the watershed and the rivers are bouncing back to life. The Project is going to generate tax revenue for the County. And the profits of the Project going to cancer research for children? Hell, yes. It’s a win for everyone.”