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Watershed Function – Protecting Salinas River Flows

The Otter Project Takes Action to Protect Salinas River Flows

Late Thursday, June 2nd, The Otter Project delivered a “Sixty-Day Notice of Intent to Sue for Endangered Species Act and Clean Water Act Violations in Relation to the Salinas Valley Water Project” to NOAA Fisheries, Army Corps of Engineers, and Monterey County Water Resources Agency (MCWRA). A “60-Day Notice of Intent” is generally sent to agencies so that they have the opportunity to take corrective action before a lawsuit is filed.

“We believe water is a shared resource that is critically important for human health and development, irrigation, and for the environment. When water is in short supply we must all share the burden. Fish and other endangered species can weather a drought, but they can’t survive year after year of dry sand turning to dust,” said Steve Shimek, executive director of The Otter Project.

In Monterey County, the lower Salinas River has three main tributaries: The Arroyo Seco, Nacimiento, and San Antonio rivers. The San Antonio and Nacimiento rivers have large reservoirs holding back winter flows. In addition, the Salinas River is strongly interconnected to Salinas Valley groundwater: when groundwater is over-pumped, flow in the river is greatly diminished. After years of over-pumping, rainwater falls through thirsty river sands and never flows. In spite of receiving above average rainfall this past season, the Salinas River in Monterey County never flowed to the ocean for a single day and has not reached the ocean in recent years.

In the Monterey County portion of the Salinas Valley, agriculture uses 92% of all water and, according to annual Crop Reports, reported record production values through the extended drought while cities cut back, rural wells went dry, and the river was reduced to parched sand. “I believe in shared sacrifice: Small community wells and domestic wells went dry last summer and they will likely go dry again this summer and our river is dry and dying,” said Shimek, “I’m looking for balance.”

The South Central Coast Steelhead is perhaps the species most on the precipice of survival. A large ocean-run fish related to trout and salmon, adult steelhead can tip the scale at up to 55 pounds and reach 45 inches. Historically, an estimated 25,000 adult fish returned to the Central Coast region. Now less than 500 return to the region. And while 4,750 adult steelhead returned to the Salinas River in 1965, the most adult steelhead to return since 2010 were a mere 43 steelhead, detected in 2013. South Central Coast steelhead are listed as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act. The much larger Chinook Salmon spawned in the Salinas River until around 1915.

In 2002 Monterey County Water Resources Agency applied for a permit from the Army Corps of Engineers to construct the Salinas Valley Water Project, a project to divert Salinas River water for agriculture. NOAA Fisheries consulted with the Army Corps and in 2007 prepared a Biological Opinion that included a set of conservation actions that MCWRA was required to implement as conditions for building the diversion project. The water project was completed in 2010. In 2011 NOAA Fisheries sent a letter to the Army Corps documenting that MCWRA had built the project, was diverting water, but was not complying with the conditions of the Biological Opinion. Conditions required in the Biological Opinion included reducing pollution entering the Salinas River from MCWRA maintained ditches, water quality monitoring, and ensuring flows for a minimum number of passage days to allow steelhead passage to the ocean. None of the agencies took action.

The Otter Project believes that sea otters will thrive in a healthy ocean and the health of the coastal ocean is closely linked to the rivers that flow into it. Since its creation in 1998, The Otter Project has been taking action to protect the coast from oil spills, restore coastal ecosystems, and improve water quality, both inland and ocean.

Click here to see the NOAA Fisheries Biological Opinion

Click here to see the 60-Day Notice of Intent (letter only)

Click here to see the 60-Day Notice of Intent and supporting materials (97 pages, 8 mb file)