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Cooperation, collaboration

Fixing the Salinas River watershed is going to take a comprehensive, two-counties-wide approach

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In January, Ecologistics, Inc. held the first Salinas River Symposium at the Paso Robles Inn, attracting more than 70 stakeholders to a full-day information sharing and brainstorming event. Even before the drought, the Salinas River was plagued by numerous problems, including over-extraction of sand and gravel, water quality issues, private dams, and saltwater intrusion. Invasive plant species, introduced in a well-intentioned plan to reduce erosion, have pushed out native species and destroyed endangered steelhead trout habitat. San Luis Obispo and Monterey counties often did not collaborate on decisions that affected the watershed as a whole, and farmers and ranchers feel they are being overregulated. The Salinas River is one of the biggest recharge sources for the troubled Paso Robles Groundwater Basin.

Ecologistics convened this group to begin a discussion about how all environmental and economic needs could be addressed to begin restoration and conservation of this precious river, which begins its journey in the Los Padres National Forest in southeastern San Luis Obispo County and joins the ocean at the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary. Experts from the UC Cooperative Extension and UC Davis gave talks on water quality and produce safety, sustainable livestock production, steelhead trout research, and streamflow and sediment composition. Reports were made on successful alliances, such as the Rangeland Watershed Program, a 25-year partnership between governmental agencies, ranchers, the UC Cooperative Extension, and nonprofit organizations to improve ranching practices. Collaboration among The Nature Conservancy, the Grower-Shipper Association, the Resource Conservation District of Monterey County, and private landowners resulted in a pilot streambed maintenance program designed to reduce flood risk and protect sensitive riparian habitat along a 12-mile stretch of the river. The project was so successful that plans are in the works for a second phase of the project, which will cover another 90 miles along the river.  

In all, 12 local, state, and federal agencies sent representatives to the symposium. Five universities were in attendance and seven nonprofit organizations, as well as individual landowners and concerned citizens. San Luis Obispo County Supervisor Frank Mecham participated, as well as Monterey County Supervisor Simon Salinas’s chief of staff, Chris Lopez. A real-time survey showed that 100 percent of those in attendance felt there are significant social, economic, and biological issues affecting the Salinas River; 70 percent felt strongly or very strongly that the river could be managed differently to address these issues; 78 percent felt strongly or very strongly that there is a need for a watershed-based comprehensive plan for the entire Salinas River; 88 percent believed that collaboration among the various federal, state, and local agencies on decisions affecting the river could be enhanced. 

Lively breakout sessions ensued in the afternoon. Randomly selected members met to discuss concerns around biological, economic, sociological, technological, physical, and agency collaboration issues. The groups shared their points with the room following the sessions, which included:

• There is a public perception that the Salinas River is not valued as an important river system. 

• We must examine management of the Salinas River as one river system.

• There is a need to identify common ground between the various stakeholders and interest groups so that we can chart a path forward

• There is a need to identify short- and long-term management goals for the entire river system

• Barriers exist to moving forward, and it is complicated by the many agencies involved. 

• Organizations and agencies performing studies must be better about sharing the data and results with others, and perhaps a clearinghouse should be developed. 

More than a dozen people signed up to participate in a working group to move this effort forward and more are stepping up to be involved. We are very pleased with the results of our efforts and Ecologistics will support the long process of reaching consensus among the various stakeholders to make positive changes in watershed management. 

Stacey Hunt is the CEO of Ecologistics, a SLO-based nonprofit dedicated to creating a resilient community for the citizens of San Luis Obispo that is sustainable, both economically and environmentally. Contact her through the editor at clanham@newtimesslo.com.

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