The county’s in hot water following a warning letter about rubber dams and endangered fish from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
The Monterey County Water Resource Agency isn’t fulfilling the conditions of its Salinas Valley Water Project permit, according to NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service. The water project, more than a decade in the making, is intended to stop seawater intrusion into the Salinas Valley water basin and help endangered steelhead trout. But the water agency’s noncompliance, say biologists, is harming the federally protected fish.
“The steelhead population is declining—it’s really in dire straights,” says Devin Best, NMFS natural resource management specialist. “So in constructing the Salinas River Diversion Facility, one of the agreements was to get improved flows on the river.”
The Salinas River Diversion Facility is about five miles upstream from the ocean. It includes a rubber dam, a pump station to withdraw river water, a pipeline to a water storage pond and a fish ladder with another rubber dam that allows the steelhead to migrate past the dam upstream, to their habitat on the Arroyo Seco River.
MCWRA controls the dams that release water from the two reservoirs, creating “fish passage flows” for the steelhead. If the agency doesn’t release sufficient water and maintain these flows, the fish can’t make it to key locations—such as spawning habitat and lagoon rearing habitat.
“We don’t have the resources to verify that their water operations aren’t causing a negative impact to the species,” Best continues. “The information that [Monterey County Water Resource Agency] is collecting isn’t giving us a clear understanding of how the management of the operations affects the species right now, and we’re basically at ground zero.”
MCWRA General Manager Curtis Weeks did not respond to numerous phone calls seeking comment. In an e-mail he said, “With regard to the NOAA letter—we find a number of inconsistencies with their findings and our records and given that the letter is copied to litigants and NOAA counsel, we are preparing a response for review by our counsel.”
In the Jan. 28 letter to the Army Corps of Engineers, NMFS writes that it has found “MCWRA non-compliant …as well as failing to implement the project as it was described.”
Although the Corps issued the permit that allowed MCWR to build, NMFS analyzed the project to ensure it would not further harm the fish.
The letter lists several actions that NMFS says have not been implemented. In constructing the Salinas River Diversion Facility, MCWRA agreed to build a fish screen to prevent entrainment of steelhead. MCWRA never constructed the fish screen. The agency is also not maintaining fish passage flows, nor did it create a vegetated treatment system that uses plants to reduce contaminants—such as toxic pesticides—from polluting the Salinas River.
Finally, MCWRA had agreed to implement a water management and steelhead conservation plan. But in April 2010, MCWRA told NMFS “it did not have the financial resources, or the staff capacity, to implement the suggested monitoring plans.”