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The Salinas River divided

Dennis L. Taylor, The Californian
4/15/2011

http://www.thecalifornian.com/article/20110416/NEWS01/110415045/1002/Outage-cuts-power-23-834-Salinas/A-river-divided?odyssey=mo

As opposing sides square off over channel clearing, the Salinas River topped its banks, ruining hundreds of acres of crops

Background

-Between 1997 and 2008, growers, having obtained permits, bulldozed brush and debris from the Salinas River channel. The permits were issued in 5-year periods and came up for review in 2008. The Monterey County Water Resources Agency filed a Notice of Intent to adopt a position that the Salinas River Channel Maintenance Program the official name of the channel clearing did not cause any environmental damage that could not be averted, or mitigated in the wording of land-use policy. Such a filing is called a negative declaration under California law.
-Filing a Notice of Intent requires opening the process to public comment. During a series of meetings in 2009 before the County Water Resources Agency, environmental groups challenged the findings. In August 2009, one environmental group, Monterey Coastkeeper, introduced 1,700 pages of documents arguing that the findings were flawed.
-Less than two months later the Regional Water Quality Control Board wrote the County Water Resources Agency informing them of the need to conduct a full environmental impact report under Californias Environmental Quality Act.
-Fast forward to March 2011, the County Water Agency is examining ways to raise funding for an EIR, but since no study has been conducted, no permits have been issued, and the river is reverting back to its natural state. Farmers claim the growth of foliage and accumulation of debris is what was to blame for the river spilling its banks near Gonzales during the heavy rains of March.

A bureaucratic battle between growers, water officials and environmentalists combined with persistently heavy rains set the stage in March for the Salinas River to flood, ruining hundreds of acres of crops in south Monterey County in the process, according to growers and water officials.

But as farmers continue to assess the muddy damage, the finger-pointing among the groups has only intensified.

The amount of water that runs through the Salinas River is largely controlled by the amount of outflow water released from the Naciemento Reservoir in San Luis Obispo County.

In recent years, growers have bulldozed and cleared accumulated brush and debris from the river channel, keeping it from backing up and allowing it to flow harmlessly to the sea without threatening the valuable agricultural fields it snakes through.

This year was different.

Because of regulatory challenges by environmental groups who say the river-clearing process is damaging if not killing the waterways rich eco-system, farmers were unable to get the necessary permits to clear the waterway.

The river is home to several endangered species, including the red-legged frog, steelhead trout, a small bird called the Least Bells Vireo and native vegetation that has broad effects on the rivers ecosystem, according to documents filed with the Monterey County Water Resources Agency. Concerns for these species, and the overall health of the river, prompted environmental groups to challenge the process, halting the channel clearing.

And, when last months rains came, officials had little choice but to release the accumulating water, which was threatening to overtop the dam.

The resulting discharge, which was running at an estimated 15,000 cubic feet per second imagine 15,000 basketballs passing by you in a second knocked holes in the earthen levees designed to protect the adjacent fields.

And even though there have been heavier rains and bigger releases from the reservoir in previous years, the levees failed this time local growers say because they were stopped from clearing the channel during the dry season.

n March, roughly 100 acres of planted fields flooded in the Gonzales area when the surging river pushed through man-made levees. The county Agricultural Commissioners office has yet to attach a dollar value to the losses.

When the dam fills up, you have to release much more water, said Abby Taylor-Silva, vice president of policy and communication for the Salinas-based Grower-Shipper Association of Central California. With the congestion in the river, what used to take two days to reach the mouth of the river now takes four days. [Vegetation] slows the flow, and then the water backs up and overtops the levees.

But like many complicated issues involving the conflicts between agricultural production and good stewardship of the land, none of the positions people have staked out are black and white.

The agency does believe a channel filled with brush is problematic, said Bill Phillips, the deputy general manager of the Water Resources Agency, which oversees the Salinas Valley Flood Control Project. But Im not ready to say it was entirely to blame.

How floods harm growers

Wayne Gularte suffered losses during the floods of 1995. Gularte grows row crops including lettuce, broccoli and celery in the Chualar area, and when the river crested that winter, he said, it washed away some 10 feet of soil across 10 acres cutting its own channel through his land. Because of that threat he leaves those 10 acres unplanted until later in the year.

I had a plan to plant in April but now it doesnt look like I can plant until June or July, Gularte said.

Once a field is flooded, federal law and food safety agreements in the Leafy Green Initiative prohibit planting for 60 days because of the potential for dangerous pathogens brought onto the soil by the flood waters. Growers can cut down that time to 30 days if they conduct soil testing, but by that time, the damage has been done.

The 60-day countdown, however, doesnt start until the water has receded. Depending on the runoff or the height of the water table in any particular area if the ground is saturated, water can come into waterways from beneath it can take weeks or even longer for the water to recede enough to start the clock, said Robert Johnson, chief of water resources planning with the Water Resources Agency.

Farmers in the Salinas Valley can get several rotations of crops harvested in a single growing season. Having to wait 60 days precludes a cycle and significantly affects that years income for the year, Gularte said. But the repercussions keep coming.

Shippers, Gularte said, arent keen on distributing produce that has been grown on an affected field 60 days later or not.

A lot of shippers just dont want it, he said. They dont want to mess with any chances. Theres lots of ways this is a loss.

A problem growers thought solved

Prior to the advent of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, growers merely doused the vegetation with a commercial grade defoliant. As the country demanded change and regulations were developed prohibiting treating river vegetation with poison, farmers adapted by bulldozing problematic channels.

Over the years, a number of regulators became involved in ensuring a degree of restraint in the Salinas River clearing process including the Central Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board, the Army Corps of Engineers, the California Department of Fish and Game, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administrations National Marine Fisheries Service.

The regional water board covers an area that roughly runs from Santa Cruz County south to just past Santa Barbara and east along the Gabilan Mountain range.


Between 1997 and 2008, growers were able to clear brush and debris from the river channel under the watchful eye of the Army Corp of Engineers. Since the vast majority of the river winds its way through private property, farmers paid for the clearing.

Then, on Sept. 30, 2009, the status quo came to a grinding halt.

Compelled by state law, the Monterey County Water Resources Agency commissioned a study of the channel-clearing process before another round of five-year permits could be released. Legally, the process is open to public comment.


One agency, the Central Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board, went beyond just sending the county a letter.

The board used its extensive authority to halt the entire process until an in-depth environmental study of the process could be completed.

They hold all the cards, Phillips said.

The action by the Water Quality Board itself was prompted by a deluge of concerns raised by regional environmental organizations. Monterey Coastkeeper, a nonprofit environmental group under the umbrella of The Sea Otter Project, filed more than 1,700 pages of comments. Coastkeeper hired watershed and fisheries consultants and forged a temporary partnership with the Stanford University Environmental Law Center.

Additionally, it rallied comments from the Sierra Club, Surfrider Foundation, California State Lands Commission, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and the Monterey Bay Area Unified Air Pollution Control District.

The result was the Water Quality Board required a full environmental study as dictated by the California Environmental Quality Act the granddaddy of environmental regulation in the state.

Agriculture vs. environment

At its crux, the issue of bulldozing portions of the Salinas River channel has pitted two common nemeses against each other.

On one side are the growers and shippers. On the other are the regulators and environmentalists. And like most confrontations, there are those who are unflinching in their stances and those who want to find some compromise solution to the stalemate.


Farmers say they are being unfairly targeted; regulators and environmentalists say there is too much at stake for the 100-mile-long Monterey County section of the rivers ecosystem to risk anything other than a complete, thorough environmental review.

In a letter dated Aug. 10, 2009, attorney Molly Erickson, who represented the Open Monterey Project an environmental and open-meeting advocacy group accused the countys Water Resources Agency of a litany violations in assembling its initial study for the five-year permits.

According to Erickson, the process contained breaches in Californian open-meeting laws. Yet other criticisms focused on the complicated wording found in the county study. Ericksons group also criticized the agency for piecemealing some sections of the river while ignoring others, such as the Salinas River Lagoon.

In fact, the Salinas River Lagoon Fisheries Enhancement Project is not mentioned a single time in the initial study on the Channel Maintenance Program. Why not? Ericksons letter read.

She also noted the channel clearing can harm endangered species found in and around the rivers ecosystem.

Our clients are concerned that the proposed project is yet another example of the Countys continued artificial manipulation of the Salinas River, Erickson wrote. She continued, The natural flow, the natural habitat, and the flora and fauna that depend on the natural habitat, have suffered greatly as a result.

During a recent interview from her Monterey office, Erickson said any environmental review of the proposed projects should include the river in its entirety.

The river needs to be looked at as a whole, she said. One part affects all parts.

Both sides digging in

Steve Shimek, the chief executive of The Otter Project and the program manager of Monterey Coastkeeper, which submitted the 1,700 pages of documents challenging the water agencys draft findings, said the agricultural interests have already narrowed the river channel by planting crops within historical flood plains of the Salinas River.


They want to turn the Salinas River into a drainage ditch, he said.

Some growers, however, say they cringe when they hear the claims of the environmentalists.

Darlene Din, who consults with the Salinas River Channel Coalition, an ad-hoc group of growers advocating for the ability to keep the channel clear, is tempered in her approach to representatives of environmental groups.

When they say we want to bulldoze 100 miles of the river, thats, well, disingenuous, Din said, adding that the actual amount of river channel that has been cleared is a third of that. Gularte, the grower from Chualar, uses words like propagandist.


But Shimek is nonplussed.

All you have to do is read the language of the permits [growers] are seeking, he said. The permits dont ask for 30 miles; they ask for 92 miles, to be exact, and thats what you need to evaluate.

In fact, the Salinas River Lagoon Fisheries Enhancement Project is not mentioned a single time in the initial study on the Channel Maintenance Program. Why not? Ericksons letter read.

She also noted the channel clearing can harm endangered species found in and around the rivers ecosystem.

Our clients are concerned that the proposed project is yet another example of the Countys continued artificial manipulation of the Salinas River, Erickson wrote. She continued, The natural flow, the natural habitat, and the flora and fauna that depend on the natural habitat, have suffered greatly as a result.

During a recent interview from her Monterey office, Erickson said any environmental review of the proposed projects should include the river in its entirety.

The river needs to be looked at as a whole, she said. One part affects all parts.

Its apparent the two sides arent near working out any compromises, a face-off that Din said is regrettable.

The whole thing is very sad, she said. Because of the political rhetoric and because of the complexity of the problem, many people dont understand what we are faced with.

For his part, Shimek said he would sit down with growers groups and see if there is a way to find a balance.

Litigation in the future?

Shimek insists that in bulldozing the channel the growers and water agency are looking at the river single-mindedly.

Its a harsh practice that seeks to address only one issue flooding, he said. Monterey Coastkeeper and the environmental community want better balancing of stakeholder values. Right now, the river is being managed for only one set of values.


He is clear that he is ready to fight for environmental values. He candidly acknowledged that he showed up at the water agency meeting with boxes of documents for the purpose of having them entered into the record.

We were prepared for a lawsuit, Shimek said.

The issue of environmental damage because of bulldozing is quite possibly only the beginning in the battle over the river. Among the documents submitted were many showing how pesticide runoff from age practices is making its way into the sea otter population off the Monterey coast. Vegetation, Shimek argues, removes sediment, pathogens and chemicals from the silt that otherwise makes their way downstream and out into the bay.

In the 1800s, the Salinas River meandered all over the valley, which is what makes the land so fertile and valuable for agriculture. As the river flooded, it washed soils and nutrients downstream and across the broader plain, Shimek said.

Now, we dont need flooding we can do the same thing chemically, he said. Now, flooding is a liability. Weve pushed the river to one side of the valley and narrowed it so it doesnt have the width to expand during heavy rains.

Farmers argue that the river flows through private property, and they need to clear the channel to protect their investments.

But Shimek questions the premise of bulldozing river channels to protect farm land.


Theres risk in developing in a flood plain, he said. The core issue is that flood control is offered to cities. Now we are expected to offer flood control to agriculture? Its a [basic] difference in values.

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