The Salinas River Divided
Apr 16, 2011
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 waterway’s 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 Bell’s Vireo and native vegetation that has broad effects on the river’s 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 month’s 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.