Why is the Salinas River So Important?
The Salinas River is the Central Coast's largest river and has the fourth* largest watershed in
California, flowing 170 miles from the mountains in southern San Luis Obispo County
northward to Monterey Bay. Most rivers in California flow west or south. Because it flows
northward and has one of the largest subsurface flows in the nation, the Salinas River is
called "the Upside Down River." The Salinas River is an integral part of numerous novels
written by John Steinbeck and is the subject of a book written by Anne B. Fisher, The Salinas,
Upside Down River, (Rivers of America). The Salinas was originally named Rio Monte Rey (the
Mountain King River) in 1776 by Juan Bautista de Anza and later renamed the Salinas River.
* Within California, only the Sacramento, San Joaquin and Klamath River Watersheds are larger than the
Salinas River Watershed.
The Salinas River watershed, which includes the Nacimiento River, San Antonio River, Estrella
River, and Arroyo Seco River, encompasses approximately 4,780 square miles (from US
Geologic Survey, Homer Hamlin). It supplies the water for central coast cities from San Luis
Obispo to Salinas as well as one of the most productive agricultural valleys in the United
States. The Salinas River has been subjected to many changes over the years. The river flows
into one of one of the world's most diverse marine ecosystems, Monterey Bay National Marine
Sanctuary. The Salinas River is designated by the California State Water Resources Control
Board as one of the most critical watersheds in California due to degrading habitats,
exportation, over-use and non-point pollution impacts on water quality.
Salinas River Habitat:
In addition to its importance as the lifeblood of the productive Salinas Valley, the Salinas River
is home of one of California's most threatened steelhead populations. While formerly vast
populations of steelhead have dwindled over the past 100 years due to the construction of
dams and development, the Salinas is the longest and largest river system south of San
Francisco supporting an active steelhead population. In the early 1900's and earlier, huge
migrations of steelhead and Chinook Salmon occurred in the Salinas River and tributaries.
Today, the Arroyo Seco River, Paso Robles Creek, Jack Creek, Santa Rita Creek, Atascadero
Creek, Santa Margarita Creek, Trout Creek, Tassajara Creek, Rinconada Creek and many other
tributaries in the western and southern part of the watershed continue to have significant
populations of steelhead. Dams on the Salinas, Nacimiento and San Antonio Rivers impede
steelhead migration to spawning habitat. Low flows also impact the migration of steelhead.
Today, the Salinas River is in trouble. Pollution, urbanization, excessive water use, dams,
vegetation removal, water exportation to the City of San Luis Obispo and other factors have
taken their toll on the health of the river.
Salinas River Restoration Planning:
The Salinas River can and should be restored by implementing the goals and strategies
contained in the Upper Salinas River Watershed Action Plan (link provided below).
In 1999, the Upper Salinas Watershed Coalition (USWC) was formed by a group of local
citizens interested in restoring the Salinas River. The USWC identified initial issues that needed
to be addressed, including the need for more information about water quality and steelhead.
Volunteer members of the USWC began conducting water quality monitoring of the Salinas
River and various tributaries. They also requested that Department of Fish and Game staff
conduct steelhead surveys of Atascadero Creek and other tributaries. USWC activities were
supported by American Watersheds, a local nonprofit organization that was part of the
Atascadero Community Services Foundation. American Watersheds was successful in obtaining
a grant from the Department of Fish and Game to begin a series of community workshops. In
2000, the Upper Salinas-Las Tablas Resource Conservation District (US-LT RCD), in
cooperation with American Watersheds, the Department of Fish and Game, Regional Water
Quality Control Board and the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, established a work
program to begin the preparation of a watershed management plan for the Salinas River.
Between 2000 and 2004, while water quality studies, fisheries studies, biological and
morphological studies were being conducted, the US-LT RCD held a series of public workshops
and agricultural symposiums, educating the public and obtaining the consensus of land
owners, farmer groups, public agencies and environmental organizations. In preparing the
watershed management plan, the US-LT RCD integrated a wide range of environmental,
economic and social issues, each tied to goals for improving water quality, protecting habitats
and saving soil resources. The Watershed Action Plan (WAP) was formally accepted by the
State Water Resources Control Board in 2004. It was the result of a multi-jurisdictional
approach requiring a great deal of cooperation between local, state and federal agencies. It
incorporated the input of local landowners, farmers, ranchers, organizations and citizens
during more than three years of public meetings.
What is the Next Step in Restoring the Salinas River?
The Upper Salinas River Watershed Action Plan established numerous goals and strategies
that will result in the betterment of the Salinas River. We believe that implementation of the
Goals and Strategies (Link to the WAP Goals and Strategies) identified in the Watershed
Action Plan is critical to ensuring that this precious resource is available for future generations.
The Watershed Action Plan is as relevant today as it was when it was approved in 2004. Our
company, which designs stream restoration projects and erosion control, implements projects
that have a positive impact on the river and the watershed. But it takes everyone of us.
Collectively, individually, we can make a difference by implementing the strategies of the
Watershed Action Plan and restoring our river.
THE "UPSIDE DOWN RIVER"
Salinas River & Nacimiento River
Photos by Don Funk
Steelhead in the Salinas River and Tributaries
Steelhead migrate within the Salinas River to spawning areas in tributaries such as the
Arroyo Seco River, Atascadero Creek, Paso Robles Creek, Santa Rita Creek, Jack Creek, Santa
Margarita Creek, Tassajara Creek, Trout Creek and other streams that flow out of the
mountain canyons west of the Salinas River. Steelhead have been found recently in the upper
Salinas River watershed exceeding 24 inches in length, although they have been known to
reach as much as 45 inches in length and 55 pounds (source: NOAA NMFS February 2, 2012).
Unfortunately, there are many barriers to steelhead migration, including dams, stream
crossing structures, improperly designed culverts and other structures. In addition, adequate
stream flow and good water quality are critical for steelhead migration. Flows have been
impacted by water extraction, dams, and water exportation. Former major steelhead
migration routes and spawning areas along the upper reaches of the Salinas, Nacimiento and
San Antonio Rivers were blocked by the construction of dams during the 1940's through the
1960's. Unfortunately, fish ladders were not included in the construction of these dams. In
addition, water from the Salinas River is exported to serve the growing population of the City
of San Luis Obispo, further reducing flows along the River.
Steelhead in the Salinas River watershed migrate from spawning areas down the Salinas River
to the ocean, sometimes over 100 miles. It is important for the survival of the Salinas River
steelhead that have the capability to migrate within the watershed. Steelhead, like salmon, are
an anadromous fish that thrive in both the ocean and local freshwater streams. Winter
steelhead begin ascending from tributaries as early as November each year, and the steelhead
runs continue through April. Adequate stream flows during the winter and spring are
necessary to sustain yearly Steelhead migration. Spawning occurs throughout the winter
months in fist sized gravels of Salinas River tributaries. Unlike Pacific salmon, steelhead are
able to reverse the chemical and physical changes that occur prior to the spawning. Year after
year, steelhead survive to return to the ocean and back to local streams in Monterey and San
Luis Obispo Counties to spawn for multiple seasons (information source: Thornton, 1996).
The Salinas River Steelhead are impacted by increased sediment, poor water quality, lack of
stream flow, excessive use of water, and barriers to fish passage. Three major dams and
countless smaller dams and other obstructions have impacted steelhead over the past
century. The Watershed Action Plan provides strategies for the reversal of these trends.
Steelhead surveys of the Salinas River and tributaries have been conducted by California
Department of Fish and Game (contact Dave Highland), University of California Cooperative
Extension (contact Lisa Thompson, Fisheries Biologist, UC Davis), Upper Salinas-Las Tablas
Resource Conservation District (refer to the 2002 Upper Salinas River Fisheries Study and
Steelhead Map, links to the report and map above) and other organizations.
Salinas River near Bradley
Enjoying the Scenic Salinas Riverwalk Trail
You can experience a wonderful part of part of the Salinas by walking the pleasant Salinas
Riverwalk Trail in Paso Robles. The trail parallels several miles of the River beginning at the
south end of Larry Moore Park (off Riverbank Avenue) to Creston Road. There are several
easy access points, including Larry Moore Park, Creston Road, Woodland's Walmart Center
and the Albertson's shopping center. The trail skirts a short section of Turtle Creek, a
former steelhead stream, west of the Woodlands/Albertson's shopping center.
The City of Paso Robles, in a cooperative effort with the Upper Salinas-Las Tablas RCD and
other organizations, has initiated various restoration projects to enhance the habitat along
the River. Erosion control, riparian planting and weed removal have been a part of that
effort. Star Thistle is a constant issue along the River (and throughout much of San Luis
Obispo County). The City is also incorporating the River into their future plans for the
enhancement of the City Downtown Area.
Links to programs, studies and
documents regarding the
Salinas Riverwalk Trail design
and photos by Don Funk
Information about the Salinas River Provided by
Santa Lucia Group, LLC
A Conservation Consulting Network and
American Watersheds, a nonprofit organization
Salinas River Steelhead
Click the following links for more:
How has the City of Paso Robles implemented the Watershed
The City of Paso Robles has helped to implement the Watershed Action Plan by embarking upon
a number of related projects, including the City's Riverwalk Trail (see below) and the City's
Salinas River Corridor Plan (Link to Paso Robles River Corridor planning effort). The City
cooperated with the US-LT RCD in the development of the first leg of the Salinas Riverwalk Trail.
They are in the process of planning additional links to the Salinas Riverwalk Trail.
Importantly, the Watershed Action Plan helped them obtain the funding they needed to
accomplish many of their plans for the enhancement of the Salinas River. The City's River
Corridor Plan is also an element of their Economic Strategy Plan for the future of the City.
|Implement the Strategies of the Watershed Action Plan!
|Santa Lucia Group
Conserving the Environment
Conserving the Human Spirit
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Salinas River near Santa Margarita
Salinas River southeast of town of Santa Margarita
Salinas River near Santa Margarita
The Impacts of the Nacimiento Lake Dam
The largest tributary of the Salinas River is the Nacimiento River even though it only
has a watershed area of 361.5 square miles, about 7.6 percent of the area of the
entire Salinas River Watershed. Prior to construction of the Nacimiento Lake Dam,
the Nacimiento River often provided over half of the entire annual peak flows in the
Salinas River! (The annual peak flow is defined as the maximum instantaneous flow
occurring in a water year (October 1 to September 30 (USGS)). Today, the dam
greatly restricts peak flows, resulting in less flooding but also adversely affecting
the steelhead population in both rivers.
Based upon gaging station data, for the years 1940 through 1956 (prior to the
dam), the average maximum peak flow in the Nacimiento River each year was
25,313 cfs. After the dam was completed, the average annual maximum peak flow
(downstream of the dam) was reduced to 2,357 cfs, leaving only nine percent of
the normal historical peak flow. The healthy morphology of both rivers has been
negatively impacted. (source: Upper Salinas River and Tributaries: Watershed
Fisheries Report, March 2002)
Impact of Salinas River Dam
Rivers require a combination of flood and bankfull flows for good health and
stable morphology. The Salinas Dam at Santa Margarita Lake has greatly
reduced average downstream flows causing reductions in steelhead population
and impacted steelhead migration in the entire river system. In addition, the
downstream surface flows as well as subsurface flows and Salinas Valley
groundwater basins have been adversely impacted since the construction of the
Salinas Dam. Water loss is due in large part by the exportation to the City of
San Luis Obispo and surface evaporation at the lake.
After construction of the Salinas Dam, Median Annual Flows in the Salinas River
were reduced by over 75 percent. The median annual flow of the Salinas River
(downstream of the dam) if there were no dam would be 385 million cubic
feet/year vs. 96 million cubic feet/year/ with the dam (source: Watershed
Fisheries Report, A Study of the Upper Salinas River and Tributaries prepared in
2002 by the Upper Salinas-Las Tablas RCD in cooperation with the California
Department of Fish and Wildlife (formerly CDFG), Monterey Bay National Marine
Sanctuary and Regional Water Quality Control Board.)
|The Salinas River is the
Lifeblood of San Luis Obispo
and Monterey Counties on the
Central Coast of California
Coast Range Newt
San Joaquin Kit
Impacts of Illegal Off-Road Vehicles and Trash
Other major sources of problems in the Salinas River include illegal off-road
vehicles (OHVs) and trash, which include wrecked cars, appliances, tires, paper,
oil and other debris. OHVs include motorcycles, quads, trucks, cars and SUVs.
The OHVs tear up the river bed and destroy habitat, impacting the many rare
and endangered species that make the River their home. The noise caused by
OHVs may also disturb critical bird nesting areas along the river. The RCD staff
have witnessed destruction of beaver dams and pollution of the River by OHVs.
The OHVs also cause erosion and other impacts in the fragile river system. The
worst problems occur within the City of Atascadero and the community of
Templeton. The City of Paso Robles has instituted river patrols in the past and
the problems with OHVs in that city have reduced, although it continues to be a
problem in the southern areas of Paso Robles. OHVs are also destroying parts
of the Salinas River in San Miguel. These people are not only destroying the
river habitat and polluting the water, they are also potentially violating State and
Federal laws that prohibit pollution of rivers and destruction of wetland areas.
In addition, people throw trash and other items into the River, further
destroying the habitat and polluting the river. The Cities of Paso Robles and
Atascadero as well as the community of Templeton have conducted yearly
"Stream Cleanup Days." Persons interested in volunteering for these events
should contact their city. And if you see persons driving in the river or polluting
the river with trash, we recommend that you contact the local police department
(Hopefully, Atascadero and the County will begin programs to prohibit
destruction of the River by OHVs similar to the program begun by Paso Robles).
Let's all keep our River clean and healthy!
OHVs and trash destroy the River