It first raised its head at the June 22 meeting of the Monterey County Water Resource Agency, the arm of Monterey County government that is mainly responsible for ensuring that the growers of the Salinas Valley get enough water for their crops.
The idea was put in the form of a motion: Let us consider easing the the impact of the drought by using just about every ounce of water stored in the county-owned Nacimiento Reservoir. Put another way, let’s open the floodgates so that the flow reaches 250 to 300 cubic feet per second rather than the minimal seasonal level of 60 cubic foot per second designed to provide some irrigation water while also maintaining the riparian habitat and the wildlife it supports.
It took only one day for the idea to travel all the way to the offices of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the federal agency charged with protecting the ocean environment and the waterways that sustain it.
It took four pages for NOAA to say what it thought of the idea, but it can be summarized in two words. No way!
In a letter of July 1, recently obtained by the Partisan, regional NOAA official Gary Stern said reducing the flows so dramatically would severely jeopardize the already threatened steelhead population.
National fisheries experts believe “the highly impaired status of the population has been further impacted by the prolonged drought conditions, which has greatly restricted or eliminated migration for adult and smolt life stages,” Stern wrote. “…The lack of river flow has precluded all steehead reproduction for at least the last two years and the potential for reproduction the previous two years was very low, if any.”
Stern said the flow was seriously impaired in 2014-15 in part because of the limited storage in the Nacimiento and San Antonio reservoirs and the operation of the Salinas Valley Water Project in back to back dry years, 2012 and 2013. The water project is a principal provider of irrigation water to Salinas Valley farms.
“Implementation of the proposed flow release plan would result in an acceleration depletion of the remaining reservoir storage and would increase the likelihood of precluding a third consecutive steelhead year-class from reproducing,” Stern wrote. Reducing the flow as proposed by county officials would “provide temporary benefits to a very limited number of stakeholders and beneficial uses” while likely resulting in “mortality to all aquatic species present.”
In other words, don’t even think about it.