Salinas Valley Water Wars Tap Into a Well of Anger


In this agricultural valley, lettuce is king, one town holds a broccoli festival, another bills itself as the artichoke capital of the world, and people tend to be slow to speak and economical with their words when they do.

Until you ask about water. Then they get downright loquacious. And testy. Real testy. Some say that if there is a seventh level of hell in California’s water wars, it lies here in the Salinas Valley.

For decades, farmers have fought one another and together fought city dwellers and the county over who is to blame for making Monterey County the site of the worst seawater intrusion in the state.


Seawater intrusion occurs in coastal communities where so much water has been pumped from underground reserves that the level of fresh water drops, allowing seawater to flow in.

It has been a problem in Ventura and Santa Cruz counties in recent years, and has plagued other coastal communities across the globe.

Orange County has remained relatively free of seawater intrusion problems since early 1970s, when officials began pumping water into the coastal aquifers, creating a barrier against the seawater.

But in Monterey County, where agriculture is a $2.2-billion industry, and in a valley where it essentially is the only industry, restoration of the aquifers is a life-and-death issue.

But even as saltwater has destroyed the 180-foot-deep coastal aquifer, begun to infiltrate the 400-foot aquifer and come to threaten even the deepest, 900-foot aquifer, northern farmers, southern farmers and townsfolk have slung mud, filed lawsuits, lambasted one another publicly and argued endlessly over the nature of the problem. They have been at loggerheads over the best way to fix it and over who should pay for restoration.

So valley dwellers were skeptical when the Monterey County Water Resources Agency announced last month that, after years of bickering, water users had agreed not only on a plan to stop the seawater intrusion by expanding the county’s water supply and using some of it to recharge the aquifers, but on a way to divide the $40-million cost of the project fairly between farmers and city dwellers.

And to the agency’s dismay, the plan is drawing fire even from those involved in putting it together, raising fears that this last-ditch effort to solve the valley’s water troubles without state intervention is doomed.

“I don’t know that I agree that there is really a problem,” said Chris Bunn, a lettuce farmer and owner of Crown Packing Co. in Salinas.

Bunn is growing lettuce and other crops near Castroville, above what hydrologists agree is one of the areas hit hardest by seawater seeping into overpumped underground water reserves.

Hydrologists believe that seawater now underlies 22,000 acres in northern Monterey County, almost six miles inland and about one mile from the city of Salinas.

“I have a real problem with this hysteria,” said the lanky and genial Bunn, a second-generation valley farmer. “My wells are fine. I have wells in the area that have not changed for the last 10 to 15 years.”

That sort of casual dismissal of an intrusion the state says is the result of overpumping has kept the valley from being able to fashion a solution to a problem first detected in the 1940s, said Stephen Collins, chairman of the water agency’s board of directors.

Collins, a third-generation valley farmer, is vice president of Ocean Mist Farms, the world’s largest grower of artichokes. Born in the valley, he has spent much of his adult life dealing with the valley’s water problems.

“If we can just keep the rational, middle of the road, ‘let’s forget the historical baggage'-type people on board,” said Collins, “we have a chance of pulling this thing off.”

If he sounds wistful, it is because the history of this wildly productive valley’s water battles has been a long, messy one.

Monterey’s intrusion occurs only on the north end of the Salinas Valley, near the sea. For decades, southern Salinas Valley farmers--whose land is 65 miles from the affected area--insisted they were not part of the problem.

Hydrologists hired by the state and county, however, say that water the southern farmers pull from the Salinas River and pump from the ground also affects the water table, although to a much lesser extent than the pumping in the north.

Up until the last week of August, when farmers floated the possibility of asking Salinas residents to share more of the costs of the project, it looked like the ugly past might finally be heading toward a happy ending. Valley people seemed ready to set aside their differences and come together to save the single resource none of them can do without.

But history is a powerful force here, and it is beginning to look like the valley’s water users will not be able to break free of its grip.

For much of this century, agriculture has been the economic lifeblood of the cities and towns that rise up from the expanses of row crops covering most of the valley’s 95-mile length. Salinas is a giant farm town, home to the packers and shippers and all the other support businesses that exist solely to serve farming.

But intensive farming that produces as many as three crops a year on some of the land also has put at risk the aquifers that irrigate the fields and supply drinking water to the towns. Ninety-five percent of the water consumed in the valley each year is used by agriculture.

Virtually the entire world supply of artichokes is grown near Castroville. So is 40% of the nation’s supply of head lettuce, 53% of the broccoli and 26% of the strawberries, according to Gerry Willey, the county’s deputy agriculture commissioner.

“It’s not because of ingenuity, it’s because of locale,” Willey said.

The valley once was a vast swampland, where the Salinas River and its tributaries meandered through thousands of acres of wetlands on the way to the sea. When the rivers were dammed and the swamps drained, some of the richest soil in the world was left exposed. Coupled with the valley’s temperate climate, it made the valley ideal for year-round, high-yield farming.

And that is what generations of valley dwellers have done. They drilled wells on their property and irrigated 250,000 acres, producing 50 crops worth more than $1 million each.

They pumped as the sea quietly flowed into aquifers at the northwest end of the valley, ruining wells and threatening the artichoke crop, which thrives in the misty cool of Castroville but doesn’t like the increasingly salty water available for irrigation.

They pumped as the menace grew to the drinking supply of the city of Salinas, home to 129,000 people. They fertilized as nitrates built up in the soil, fouling wells in Chualar, Salinas and Gonzales and posing a potential health hazard to newborns. High levels of nitrates in drinking water have been linked to birth defects and miscarriages.

State Water Board May Intervene

So alarmed is the State Water Resources Control Board by the deterioration of the aquifers and the buildup of nitrates that it has served notice to the county of its intent to step in if this last effort fails to fix the problem. The state can start an adjudication process that would sort out water rights and allocate the water.

Some say the state would never take such a drastic step. Others say they would welcome the intervention, if it would put an end to the fighting.

“You know, we say whiskey’s for drinkin’ and water’s for fightin’,” said Jan Collins, a Salinas councilwoman who has lived in the valley for 43 years. Her son, Stephen, is the water agency chairman.

Collins counts as the valley’s single biggest achievement on the water front its building of a $75-million water reclamation plant that this April began pumping treated sewage water to irrigate 12,000 acres of fields in the north. That makes the Salinas Valley the largest user of treated sewage water for irrigation in the United States, according to water agency officials.

Every acre-foot of the treated water used to irrigate crops, she pointed out, is an acre-foot that stays in the aquifers. The project is expected to cut saltwater intrusion by 50%.

But when Mike Armstrong, executive director of the county’s water agency, took the job four years ago, the enmity was so deep between northern and southern farmers that many of them would not speak to one another, he recalls.

After months of wrangling, all sides agreed to accept a hydrological model that showed that the northern farmers, indeed, were primarily responsible for overpumping the aquifers and would benefit the most from recharging those aquifers. The model also showed, however, that city dwellers and even the southern farmers--miles south of the damaged aquifers--were contributing to the problem and would benefit from a solution.

The water users then agreed on the $40-million plan that would build a new spillway for Nacimiento Dam in the south valley, making it possible to store more water in that reservoir in the winter and release more in the dry summer months. The plan also calls for injecting water back into the ground and would spend $500,000 studying and monitoring the nitrate problem.

The project is expected to reduce the annual seawater intrusion in the aquifers to about 20% of what it is now. A second, more ambitious phase of the project, with a $120-million price tag, will not be considered or put to a vote until the first phase is built and tested, Armstrong said.

For the last five months, farmers and city dwellers have been meeting to decide how to divide the cost of the $40-million first phase of the aquifer recharging scheme. In August, however, farmers proposed a formula that would shift more of the payment burden onto residents of Salinas and away from northern farmers, who were scheduled to pay 14 times more for the project than farmers in the south.

That proposal elicited howls of protest from Salinans and threats of abandoning the project.

Arvid Myhre, a walnut farmer in San Ardo who has spent a lifetime trying to deal with the water problem, sighed deeply when asked what advice he would give other California counties dealing with water disputes.

“My advice?” he asked. “Hire good hydrologists and good lawyers.”


Trying to Turn the Tide

For decades, sea water has been slowly intruding upon Monterey County’s coastal aquifers, spoiling wells and endangering crops. Now the county water agency believes it has devised a plan that could halt salt water intrusion into the underground aquifers, but faces opposition from farmers and others.

Operating but threatened wells serving municipal and agricultural needs


Salt water makes well unuasable

Salt water intrusion at 180 ft.

Salt water intrusion at 400 ft.


Threatened Wells: Overpumping has caused sea water to intrude almost six miles inland in the 180-foot aquifer and two miles inland in the 400-foot aquifer. The maps above show the water’s progress as of 1995.

Source: Monterey County Water Resources Agency