The Salinas River is the dominant riparian corridor along California’s Central Coast, as the watershed drains approximately 4,600 square miles of land in Monterey and San Luis Obispo Counties. Originating in the Los Padres National Forest in central San Luis Obispo County, the headwaters begin in the La Panza Range and flow northwesterly for 152 miles through the Salinas Valley and empties into the Monterey Bay near Marina. The valley lies nestled between two sets of mountain ranges, the Gabilan to the east and the Santa Lucia and Sierra de Salinas to the west.
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The watershed includes 200,000 acres of irrigated agriculture. The mild climate and deep, rich soil of the Salinas Valley have created an agricultural industry with its productive lands referred to as the “Salad Bowl of the Nation”. The majority of the United States lettuce, broccoli, artichokes, strawberries and cauliflower are produced in the Salinas Valley. This intensively farmed region along 100 miles of the Salinas River is the cornerstone of the local economy. Besides providing aquifer recharge for the irrigation water for Monterey County’s $4.5 billion thriving agricultural industry, the river provides valuable fish and wildlife habitat.
As described by John Steinbeck in ‘East of Eden’, the Salinas River is mostly experienced as a dry, sandy wash that can rage and flood intensely in big winters, which has posed a challenge for those who have settled in and tried to make a living in the valley. After a century and a half of the valley bottom’s conversion to agricultural and urban uses, the Salinas River’s riparian corridor has been significantly narrowed in parts of the valley and streamside habitat impacted by the associated need for flood control enhancement of the channel itself to protect adjacent homes and farmland. These changes along with urban and agricultural runoff have impacted native fish and wildlife species as well as water quality. Wildlife at risk include the California red-legged frog (Rana aurora draytonii), the least Bell’s vireo (Vireo bellii pusillus) and the southern steelhead trout (Oncorhynchus mykiss). The Salinas River and its tributaries have been designated by the National Marine Fisheries Service as critical habitat for steelhead.
OUR WORK IN THE WATERSHED
Weed Removal and Stream Maintenance
Habitat and water availability are also both compromised and threatened by the 3rd-largest invasion of the noxious weed, Arundo donax, which was first planted to protect river banks from erosion but then invaded the river bottom lands as well. Arundo is a non-native aggressive perennial grass that had overtaken approximately 2,000 acres of the Salinas River by 2008, forming enormous monocultures with virtually no food or habitat value for native wildlife. Arundo is known to draw over three times as much water as native vegetation, increases the likelihood of fire and flooding, and unlike native riparian plants, it provides little shading to the in-stream habitat, leading to increased water temperatures and reduced habitat quality for aquatic wildlife (Santa Ana Watershed Project Authority
Landowners and wildlife along the Salinas River are threatened by two major, interconnected problems: Proliferation of the invasive weed Arundo donax, and the high risk of the river flooding valuable land in wet years. The RCD of Monterey County is addressing these problems by collaborating with landowners, government agencies, and NGOs through two complimentary programs: the Salinas River Arundo Control Program and the Salinas River Stream Maintenance Program.