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Farmland, slough contaminated by saltwater...

Donna Jones, Santa Cruz Sentinel
2/21/2012

http://www.santacruzsentinel.com/localnews/ci_20013410

Farmland, slough contaminated by saltwater: Pajaro Valley flooding cut into irrigation supply, damaged cropland



WATSONVILLE - January's flooding along Beach and Shell roads has tainted Harkins Slough and agricultural fields with high levels of salt.

As a result, the Pajaro Valley Water Management Agency has been unable to tap the slough to supplement irrigation supplies and pieces of coastal land farmed by several growers may be unproductive for years.

"If it had been fresh water - water from the heavens - that would have been different. But it's not. It's saltwater," said Dale Huss, vice president of Ocean Mist Farms based in Castroville. "It could have a long-term, dramatic impact on those properties."

The flooding in early January was caused by a combination of big waves and a sand berm that blocked the mouth of the Pajaro River. The waves carried seawater into the freshwater system, and the berm trapped it. The brackish water backed up Watsonville Slough more than three miles, and flowed into Harkins Slough. There it stayed due to differences in elevation and the lack of storms to flush the slough.

According to the water agency, the average chloride content of Watsonville Slough at San Andreas Road is 75 mg per liter, but it soared to 8,712 mg per liter as the seawater surged upstream.

For farmers, that's important because water with high salt content is toxic to crops and reduces the soil's ability to absorb water.

The number of flooded acres and the extent of the damage has yet to be quantified.

Ocean Mist Farms' Beach Road ranch encompasses 250 acres, now planted with broccoli and artichokes, but used for strawberries in other years. About 15 acres were affected by the flooding, and Huss said the land is still soaked with seawater more than a month after Santa Cruz County Public Works crews breached the sand berm.

"I don't know how (crops) will do after that kind of salt contamination," Huss said.

It could take five to 10 years for the land to recover, he said.

Huss wants the county to take notice of the damage and act more quickly next time. It's not just the land, he said. Flooded roadways posed a serious hazard to motorists. Water agency officials also point to the contamination of Harkins Slough, which could cost up to 1,000 acre feet of irrigation water, enough to supply about 2,000 acres of strawberries.

The agency board on Wednesday will consider sending a letter to county supervisors outlining the problems.

But John Presleigh, county public works director, said his department acted as quickly as possible. The sand berm forms annually, and often is flushed by winter storms. When it's not, the county can act, but not until it meets state and federal permit conditions aimed at protecting marine life, such the tidewater goby and steelhead trout.

Under the permit, the county had to wait until rain was on the way. With a storm in the forecast, crews breached the berm on Jan. 18. It would have been illegal for him to act before then, Presleigh said.

"This was a natural event that's part of the tidewater you have out there," Presleigh said. "I can't do anything about that."

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