Both the life blood and one of the biggest
threats to the region’s agriculture, the Salinas
River is the focus of an unusual collaboration
of farmers, nonprofits and government agencies,
all working together to preserve life along it
Photography by Katie Pofahl and Patrice Ward
Illustration by Dina Clark
It isn’t easy to get to know the Salinas River, which is probably why most of us rarely think about it. Many rivers that flow through cities are highly visible and can’t be missed; not so the Salinas, which has the odd habit of disappearing below ground to continue its flow.
It is, as Steinbeck famously wrote in his 1952 masterpiece, East of Eden, a part-time river—and those sandy washes of river channel that peek out along Highway 101 don’t look like much to the casual observer. Also, almost all of the property along the river is privately owned, which makes viewing difficult.
Not many locals know that the Salinas River watershed is the fourth largest in California, more than 170 miles long, or that its health is threatened by urbanization, pollution and a wide variety of human-created problems. Yet this region and its agricultural industry, which the Monterey County Farm Bureau says puts $8.12 billion into the local economy each year, could not do without it. Without the river, there wouldn’t be a Salad Bowl of the World.
But the valley’s famous fertility comes at a cost. In the past century alone, close to 20 floods have been notable for the amount of damage they caused, according to the Monterey County Water Resources Agency, including back-to-back washouts in 1995 —possibly the worst of all. The floods during the month of March 1995 alone did $230 million in damage to an estimated 1,500 homes and 30,000 acres of farmland throughout the county.
A sandy wash where the river flows underground
“It was not a fine river at all, but it was the
only one we had and so we boasted about
it—how dangerous it was in a wet winter and
how dry it was in a dry summer.”
— John Steinbeck, East of Eden
Once more, clouds are gathering as a super-strong El Niño pattern holds simultaneous promise and threat. The good news is that landowners, farmers, government agencies and environmental groups have come together to try to solve some of the issues around the river. The partnership may be the key to preventing flood damage as well as giving everyone a fresh perspective on taking care of the river for future generations.
“And it never failed that during the dry years the
people forgot about the rich years, and during the
wet years they lost all memory of the dry years. It
was always that way.”
—John Steinbeck, East of Eden
Because so much of the land on the banks of the Salinas is privately owned—and so many of the owners are farmers, who must concern themselves with food safety and limit the possibility of bacteria being tracked into the fields—one of the only stretches of river that is open to the public is in Paso Robles, where the city has created a 2-mile Salinas River Walk that eventually will extend 30 miles south to Santa Margarita.
But there is a select club of admirers of the Salinas who have traced it from start to finish, and local resident Katie Pofahl is proud to be a member.
In 2014, she and a few friends decided to walk and paddle its entire length—something they accomplished not all at once, but in numerous expeditions over a period of months.
The Salinas originates in a mountainous region of southern San Luis Obispo County and then flows north, making it something of an anomaly among California rivers, most of which flow south or west. That, and its yearround subsurface flow, one of the largest in the United States, sparked its nickname: The Upside- Down River.
It’s a more important river than this folksy name might suggest. Its watershed encompasses 4,780 square miles and has been named one of the state’s most critical by the California State Water Resources Control Board. The river supplies water not just for agriculture, but also for municipal use from San Luis Obispo to Salinas.
Pofahl and her friends saw gorgeous stretches in south Monterey County where bald eagles soared while green and blue herons fished in pools surrounded by old growth forests, with “beautiful clear water,” says Pofahl, who is the outreach coordinator for the Elkhorn Slough Foundation. Yet other sections are home to junked cars and all kinds of illegally dumped trash.
“The average person might think it’s a waste pit,” says Pofahl of the river. “But there were so many good things that I saw.”
Landowners are responsible for cleaning up their river properties, and removing not only garbage, but also fallen trees, overgrown vegetation and invasive plants like arundo, a rapidly growing Asian reed that was planted decades ago by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to stop erosion, but has itself become a cause of erosion and a flood hazard, not to mention a thirsty guzzler of the area’s precious water.
For the past eight years, such routine maintenance has been on hiatus, due to the expiration of state permits that would have allowed riverside landowners to remove hazards and clear channels. Previously, it hadn’t been a problem getting permits renewed, says Donna Meyers, a watershed management consultant based in Santa Cruz.
But California’s Central Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board denied the renewal of its permit, and updates to the California Environmental Quality Act called for public review and an environmental impact report of the river channel watershed.
“And that process set up opposing sides,” says Meyers, who was eventually brought in to help make peace and get the Salinas River Stream Maintenance Program back on track. The program, administered by the Monterey County Water Resources Agency in partnership with the Salinas River Channel Coalition, was started after the severe floods of 1995. Shaunna Juarez, MCWRA associate water resources engineer, also helped move the program along after it stalled in 2010.
Part of the problem is that so many governmental agencies have a stake in the river.
Permits have to be submitted to not only the State Water Resource Board, which enforces the California Clean Water Act, but also to the Army Corps of Engineers, which oversees the federal Clean Water Act, and the California Department of Fish & Wildlife.
New laws concerning endangered species also weighed down the process, and an endless series of meetings seemed to go nowhere. Landowners and growers were unhappy, to say the least.
Wayne Gularte, president of the Salinas River Channel Coalition and a longtime farmer, says that the process was hampered by the government agencies’ lack of understanding of the complicated issues involved in farming.
“And it never failed that during the
dry years the people forgot about
the rich years, and during the wet
years they lost all memory of the
dry years. It was always that way.”
— John Steinbeck, East of Eden
Meyers acknowledges that some meetings were tense: “There was a complex people side to it,” she says.
One landowner who asked not to be named expressed frustration in an e-mail: “Government agencies take months to make decisions, commonly waiting until the last day or two they are allotted to give you a yes or no. To me that shows a huge lack of respect and courtesy … rude, if you would … as the growers and landowners need to arrange for additional equipment and/or labor to accomplish the job and that process itself takes time to accomplish.
“They do not take into account how much effort and financial commitment are needed to accomplish the project, nor appreciate the huge threat a severely overgrown river presents to the community at large … think roads/bridges, wastewater treatment plants and all the power line crossings across the Salinas.”
To help make the process a success, Meyers and others involved in the collaboration spent many hours visiting properties on the river and talking to landowners and growers. People whose families had been on the river for generations had special insight into their land, she says.
“We brought everyone to the table,” says Meyers. “Instead of being contentious, we rebuilt the program together.”
It also helped that The Nature Conservancy, a powerful nonprofit that seeks pragmatic solutions to conservation challenges, took an interest in the Salinas River—its health also influences the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary—and began to broker peace between the sides by proposing a science-based collaborative approach.
Jennifer Biringer, former Salinas project director for The Nature Conservancy, says that one of the challenges was getting landowners and growers to understand how their actions on one piece of property affected other properties down the river. The river had to be looked at as a whole. To illustrate that point, they modeled flow conditions for different types of flooding, which showed landowners how properly maintained secondary channels could “spread out the flow and reduce water velocity,” lessening the chance of farmland washing away, Biringer says. “It was really helpful for them to see the different scenarios.”
In addition, the annual maintenance plans help protect a variety of endangered species along the river, a long list that includes the least Bell’s vireo, the arroyo toad and the California red-legged frog. Of special concern is steelhead trout, which are born in fresh water and travel to the ocean to live as adults, but must return to the river to spawn.
The plan outlines areas for landowners to work on each year, with a biologist carefully marking the areas to be cleared, says Abigail Hart, current Nature Conservancy Salinas project director.
“The landowners bear the costs of the maintenance activities and may choose to work in secondary channels or not, based on the conditions in the river and their financial priorities for the year,” says Hart.
A demo project on an 11½-mile section of river in Chualar and Gonzales has been completed, and now permits have been submitted for more than 90 miles of river, involving at least 60 different landowners and growers, according to Meyers. If all goes as planned, they’ll be able to do necessary river maintenance this fall.
“It’s really exciting,” says Abby Taylor- Silva, vice president of the Grower-Shipper Association of Central California, a Salinasbased agricultural industry group that also helped smooth the way for river maintenance.
“It’s really helping us understand what we can do to avoid flooding and bringing a foundation of science on which to make decisions.”
It’s her hope that this is the beginning of a new and better relationship between landowners and scientists so that the Salinas Basin can be managed in the best possible way. Developing good science and data, Taylor-Silva says, is vital, and she would like to see involvement of local universities like CSU-Monterey Bay in studying the river further.
Gularte says he’s always felt that the right approach would benefit all parties involved.
“I always said, let’s make this a win-win situation for everyone—help protect the land, help with water quality, protect endangered species—and I think this is a triple-win for everyone involved.”
A special arundo abatement project is also under way, led by the Resource Conservation District of Monterey County, an important step in flood control, since the arundo thickets trap soil and other floating items when the water rises.
“It’s a beast, and there’s a lot of it,” says RCDMC executive director Paul Robins, who says there are tens of thousands of acres of arundo to be eradicated in the river corridor. But a $3.3 million grant to eradicate 350 acres of arundo was up for approval by the Wildlife Conservation Board in February, and Robins is hopeful that the weed will be under control in 10 to 20 years.
“The river tore the edges of the farmlands and
washed whole acres down; it toppled barns and
houses into itself, to go floating and bobbing away.”
—John Steinbeck, East of Eden
The story of the Salinas River is still being written. And reducing flood danger is just one aspect—ongoing worries and tensions about pollution, water rights, groundwater overdrafts, saltwater intrusion and recreational access are also problems to be dealt with.
For now, the people who are collaborating on preserving and restoring the river feel that they’re taking the efforts in the right direction. In the short term, while flood years can follow severe drought, as happened in 1978, local farmers and officials seem optimistic that there won’t be much flooding this year.
“There’s very little flow in the river. It’s pretty stark out there because of the drought,” even after several substantial storms, the MCWRA’s Juarez noted in late January. Longer term, the collaborators feel the maintenance plans will go a long way toward protecting life along the river.
“The project doesn’t address catastrophic flooding, but has charted a path forward, establishing a foundation of science and partnership that will serve stakeholders well in deciding how to manage the river for more severe flood events,” says The Nature Conservancy’s Hart.
“In a year like 1995, which was a 100- year flood, very little can be done to reduce flooding,” Hart adds. “However, the work we are proposing addresses the most frequent flood events—2-, 5- and 10-year flood events that landowners along the Salinas face, similar to the amount of water that came through the river in 2011.”
Taylor-Silva, whose father and grandfather farmed along the river, says adjusting to changing times is a necessity, and working to find solutions is all-important.
“People are really happy to have a plan,” she says of the river maintenance program. “We’ve learned from the process.”
Views from the riverbed: clockwise from upper right, the Bradley overpass;
a farm seen from a wildlife fence along the Salinas; wildlife using the river
and Katie Pofahl during one of her Salinas River trips.
Photo upper left by Oren Frey, others by Katie Pofahl
Kathryn McKenzie, who grew up in Santa Cruz and now lives on a Christmas
tree farm in north Monterey County, writes about sustainable living,
home design and health for numerous publications and websites.