Ag at Large: Environmentalists muddy Salinas River waters

Invasive weed and shrub growth is choking mile after mile of the Salinas River, threatening to cause severe flooding and lingering dangers to farmlands, while environmentally sensitive agencies withhold permits to allow a clean-up.

It has been traditional for property owners along the river to perform the clean-up detail each year, or as often as necessary, when the stream bed dries up. The Salinas River, flowing out of two upstream reservoirs, is a vital contributor to the water and environmental wealth of the world’s salad bowl.

Permits for clearing the channel were first denied in 2007 by the Central Coast Water Quality Control Board(CCWQCB). The agency ordered another agency, Monterey County Water Resources Agency (MCWRA) to prepare a costly environmental impact report (EIR), which was years in the making. It was finally released in March 2013, but not finalized and approved by MCWRA until September 2013.

What came out of the process did not include specific directions for channel maintenance or short-term solutions for vegetation or sediment management. Consequently, the Monterey County Farm Bureau has recommended that the EIR not be certified. MCWRA is expected to consider certification at its February meeting.

In the meantime, approval has been granted to a group of landowners on an 11-mile stretch ofthe river between Gonzales and Soledad to undertake some cleaning up of the river channel. Pictures taken of the project show huge power equipment dwarfed by the towering growth of reedsin the streambed.

Participation in the process by the county Farm Bureau is a natural.First, because many of the landowners adjacent to the river are its members – farmers with crops that border the river. They have been active for years in looking after the streambed, keeping it free of invasive weed growth and unwanted trash that tends to find its way to the waterway, especially when it’s running at a high level.

But Farm Bureau also interjects anther issue that has raised its head since the river last overflowed its banks, and this one amounts to an environmental backlash.More recent regulations have been imposed on food producers, such as those who line the river, requiring stringent and expensive testing of their soil if it has been inundated by flood waters. The logic behind that is that floodwaters can carry harmful bacteria, deposit them on clean soil and recede, leaving the bacteria to grow and contaminate crops planted there.

Farm Bureau personnel hardly need to remind the agencies and others involved that most of the crops grown by its riparian members are leafy green vegetable crops – no skin to peel, no cookingor processing to remove bacteria deposited on or near them by floodwaters. Consideration of that circumstance readily leads to potential losses and expenditures in the millions.

The landowners bordering the river are more than willing to perform the grubby work of keeping the river clean and clear of weeds, even if they have to do it every year. They know how to fight the weeds, reeds and trash, but clearing out environmental red tape is more complicated, and the equipment to do the job is in short supply.

Preserving precious water for irrigation, residential and commercial uses is a major responsibility for Salinas Valley residents – one that farmers are well acquainted with and have been involved in for many years. To a degree, it’s the wide-eyed environmentalists who have come late to the party. They have brought their well-intentioned principles and high sounding purposes, but the result seems to be that their greatest accomplishment has been to muddy the waters.