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County Corner: Landowners safeguard river but get stuck with fees

Issue Date: June 22, 2022
By Norm Groot
Norm Groot
Photo/Norm groot

Farming in the Salinas Valley, the Salad Bowl of the World, is ever evolving and always progressive in its approach to conservation of resources. We pride ourselves here on being the first to adapt to new strategies, cultural practices and technologies that make our soils and water produce more with fewer resource inputs. We lead by example.

That mindset is also applied to our surrounding environment: managing our rangelands and open spaces against wildfires, maintaining our ecology and habitat areas for all species, and protecting our river from invasive species that diminish flow and harm fish passage.

Yet, we have conflicting objectives from various agencies when it comes to managing this ecology. For example, the Salinas River is unique in that it is privately owned by landowners, not the state or federal agencies. These landowners along the winding riverbed are responsible for maintaining the river channel against erosion, promoting healthy habitat and—because the river is classified as meandering—providing protection against flood incursions into fields where fresh vegetables and berries are produced.

Decades ago, the Army Corps of Engineers planted Arundo perennial grass as a means to provide channel protection against erosion. While that worked, along with some berms, the unintended outcome is that the Arundo is invasive and has taken over many stretches of the river channel, choking off water flow and preventing fish passage for endangered steelhead. 

It now falls to the landowners to manage this vegetation and eradicate the river channel of this invasive plant, which can grow up to a foot in a day under the right circumstances.

While all local, state, regional and federal agencies agree that the Arundo needs to go, the landowners are left holding the bag for the expenses of doing so. These various agencies also require permits for the stream maintenance program, including a $95,000 permit fee to the Central Coast Regional Water Board, along with annual work-plan permits from the California Department of Fish and Wildlife.

This year's permits for stream maintenance are more than $17,000 for less than 97 acres of stream habitat to be managed. That works out to about $180 per acre for permits to conduct vegetation management that all the various agencies agree, in principle, must be done to improve the habitat quality. Our landowners are left to pay these permit fees, along with the actual work in the channel to remove and treat this noxious reed. 

All work must be overseen by a biomonitor, an individual who watches to ensure that no wildlife is harmed during the process; these biomonitor costs are more than the actual work being done and add substantial costs to landowners when maintaining the river channel adjacent to their production fields.

And yet, this is only a tiny portion of the actual river channel that is being maintained each year. The river itself is more than 95 miles long in Monterey County, with many multiples of landowners who lay claim to a portion of the river channel. Since this a "voluntary" program in the mindset of the various agencies overseeing our stream maintenance program, many are reluctant to expend their limited financial resources after two really rough years in the marketplace.

Monterey County Farm Bureau manages the administrative part of this program for our local Resource Conservation District and our members who are participating each year. So, we see how big these dollar amounts are. We find that having so many agencies involved in this program results in duplicative work, summary reports and sometimes even conflicting objectives. Our partner, the Resource Conservation District of Monterey County, also has its own program for Arundo removal, with millions in dollars in costs funded through grants; we appreciate its efforts to support the landowners through this complimentary program.

Without this channel maintenance program, our valuable farmland would have significant exposure to bank erosion and quite possibly flooding. Yes, we are in a drought like everyone else in the West. But many here still recall the horrendous flooding that occurred in 1995 and 1998, worsened because the river channel was poorly maintained. No one wants to see that ever happen again!

So, our landowners and farmers keep paying the agency permit fees to do the work to protect their own lands, and ultimately, safeguard the ecology of our single most important waterway.  They do so, even as the costs of maintaining your own land are ever-increasing in California.  

Our local farmers and ranchers embrace their role as stewards of the land and protectors of this waterway; we remain committed to the hard work needed now and in the future. But it does require a tremendous financial commitment by landowners and farm operators to obtain permits and complete the work plans each year.

 (Norm Groot is executive director of the Monterey County Farm Bureau. He may be contacted at Norm Groot .)

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

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