Project begins to tackle clearing of Salinas River


Issue Date: October 22, 2014
By Kate Campbell

After years spent navigating a thicket of regulations, farmers have begun clearing invasive plants and native overgrowth along the Salinas River. Work began last week on a pilot project to clear about 11 miles of secondary channel between Chualar and Gonzales.

The Nature Conservancy paid for modeling done for the pilot project; the Monterey County Water Resources Agency paid for permit applications. Landowners and farmers are doing the work themselves, after being trained to learn what techniques can be used. A related project to remove the invasive weed arundo has been funded by a $1.1 million grant from the California Wildlife Conservation Board.

The Monterey County Farm Bureau and local agencies and cities along the river's nearly 100-mile length have been concerned for years about flooding and environmental degradation, said Norm Groot, the county Farm Bureau executive director.

In 1995, severe floods damaged about 30,000 acres of prime agricultural land, permanently removing about 1,100 of those acres from future crop production, with flood-related losses estimated at $240 million. Virtually all flood control levees along the Salinas River were destroyed or severely damaged.

In the wake of the 1995 flood, emergency permits were issued to repair the levees and adequately maintain the river channel. Since 2008, however, no permits have been issued and no flood mitigation work has been done while regional water-quality authorities required preparation of an environmental impact report on the stream maintenance program—putting the Salinas River at an extremely high risk of flooding.

In 2011, minor flooding caused nearly $6 million in damage, but Farm Bureau said a large flood could easily cause damage in excess of the 1995 flood.

"The state of the river has become critical," Groot said. "If work is not performed, flooding could cause substantial and irreparable harm to the community, the environment and the surrounding agricultural lands."

The five-year project to rid the limited stretch of the Salinas River of invasive, cane-like arundo plants is expected to be completed by mid-November. The 200 acres of river area that will be treated represents the second-largest arundo infestation in California.

Arundo donax, a non-native "grass" that can grow to between 20 and 30 feet in height, is an extremely problematic, invasive plant. There are about 2,000 infested acres along the full length of the Salinas River, more than 9,000 acres in all the state's coastal watersheds.

In addition to clogging waterways and worsening flooding, arundo also uses three to four times the water of native riparian plants, taps into aquifers, is highly fire prone and severely damages wildlife habitat. In an understatement, it's regularly referred to by farmers who grow crops in coastal watersheds as "nasty stuff."

Monterey County farmer Benny Jefferson has spent years trying to work with officials and resource agencies to help clear the Salinas River channel and remove invasive plants. Jefferson, a past Monterey County Farm Bureau president, has also served on the Salinas River Channel Coalition.

"I'm just hoping this pilot project is the beginning of actions to restore the river to health," Jefferson said, describing the pilot project as a cooperative effort among landowners, environmental groups and government agencies.

"Everyone realizes we're living on borrowed time," he said. "It's going to rain again, and every year the river carries less and less water."

Jefferson called efforts to begin clearing the river's arundo infestation and overgrowth in secondary channels a "good start." The work is being conducted by farmers who have taken classes on proper vegetation removal measures and sediment control.

Although work to remove arundo along the river is limited in scope, scientists with the California Invasive Plant Council found that in coastal watersheds where arundo has been treated, more than 90 percent control was achieved.

"This indicates that watershed-based control is a realistic objective," the council said in a 2011 report on the statewide distribution and impact of arundo.

The Monterey County Farm Bureau said it is very concerned about degradation of the Salinas River channel by arundo and the heightened potential for flooding during even normal rainfall this coming winter.

"Damages could be far-reaching and cost our economy millions of dollars, while damaging our environment for many years, possibly a decade or more," Farm Bureau said in written comments to Monterey County officials.

Farm Bureau also noted that circumstances are far different now than in 1995 for farmland that becomes flooded. Food safety requirements would now halt crop production until extensive tests can be completed, to ensure no pathogens remain in the soil or water supply.

"A flood will fallow farmland for considerable periods of time, meaning many months," Groot said. "And, do we really want to wash our topsoil, reclamation pond water and other infrastructure into the National Marine Sanctuary due to a flood that can be avoided, simply if we maintain the streambed properly?"

Assembly Member Luis Alejo, D-Salinas, who helped bring stakeholders together to protect the river, said in a prepared statement that the approval of permits for the cooperative management of flood control and ecological restoration of the Salinas River "will help guide the use of the river for the next generation."

After five years of stalemate on flood risk management, Jennifer Biringer of the Nature Conservancy said, "We have shown that a science-based process in collaboration with growers and regulators results in a plan that everyone can get behind."

The degradation of the Salinas River watershed due to lack of management is a condition shared by many coastal watersheds, and the California Invasive Plant Council report concludes that treatment priorities in infested and degraded watersheds need to continue. In its recommendations to the State Water Resources Control Board, the council said arundo eradication needs to continue to protect the initial investment made in clearing channels.

Controlling arundo on watersheds where it is not abundant, but could spread, should be the next priority, researchers said. Early control is more cost effective.

Observers said the efforts of Salinas River stakeholders could map out an approach to watershed maintenance and environmental health for impaired coastal watersheds.

The California Invasive Plant Council arundo report is available for download at www.cal-ipc.org/ip/research/arundo/index.php.

(Kate Campbell is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at kcampbell@cfbf.com.)

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.