Thursday, July 30, 1998
The bad news is the next rainy season is just over three months away. The good news is meteorologists are forecasting a drier-than-normal season. And nowhere is the prospect of another wet winter of greater concern than in Carmel Valley, which was particularly hard hit by road washouts, flooding and hillside erosion during last season''s rains.
Carmel Valley''s steep and narrow geography contributed greatly to several sections of Carmel Valley Road east of the village being washed away, as well as sections of hillsides eroding across Carmel Valley Road at Scarlett Road, and at the Valley Hills shopping complex.
With numerous development projects currently under construction or in various stages of the county approval process--including Clint Eastwood''s Ca¤ada Woods project, September Ranch, Carmel Valley Ranch, and Rancho San Carlos--local officials and residents are asking whether heavy rain alone can account for last year''s problems. These folks wonder whether the cumulative impacts of development projects may be contributing to the flooding and erosion problems in Carmel Valley.
"It''s too early to tell, but I have a concern now that mans'' activities in the watershed are increasing to the point where the system may not recover fully," says Dave Dettman, a fisheries biologist with the Monterey Peninsula Water Management District (MPWMD), who is especially concerned about the impact of erosion and siltation on the Carmel River''s steelhead fisheries.
"Certainly any increase of development in a watershed increases the risk, but it depends on what practices are taken by individual landowners and those that maintain roads," adds Dettman. "It''s a big problem throughout the coastal regions of California in steelhead streams. The problem has to be solved on a watershed basis with landowners and government agencies cooperating on agreements to specify the way things should be done."
A recent study conducted by the California Department of Fish and Game indicates that the Carmel River was particularly hard hit by erosion and sedimentation this past winter--this after seven years in which the adult steelhead population count conducted by the water district jumped from one fish in 1991 to 850 fish in 1998.
While the impact of last winter''s rains on future populations is not yet known, indications are there may be a decrease in numbers in the next few years.
"Based on our survey, our hypotheses are accurate that the [Carmel River] was hard hit by storms," says Pat Coulston, a fisheries biologist with the Department of Fish and Game. "We observed a lot of silt and sand in the river bottom where there should be cobble and gravel, and we saw very few fish in the Carmel River itself.
"Most of us feel there has been an impact but it''s difficult to quantify," adds Coulston. "The obvious way is to look at adult returns two or three years from now."
According to Dettman, heavy erosion can have several major impacts on river fisheries. When siltation is particularly heavy, it can cover fish nests, decreasing the amount of oxygen available to the eggs, increasing metabolic waste that can result in direct mortality to eggs, and creating a seal which prevents the newly hatched young from leaving the nest.
Additionally, heavy siltation can prevent young fish from finding places to hide from larger predators, and can reduce the fish food supply by impacting young aquatic insects.
Although no one discounts the heavier than normal rainfall as being the main contributor to last year''s flooding and erosion, there is worry that the county''s willingness to allow development on slopes greater than 30 percent may be contributing to the problem.
The Carmel Valley Master Plan specifically prohibits development on slopes greater than 30 percent, and cites erosion and siltation as a major potential problem in the valley due to soil type and geography. Nevertheless, exemptions are routinely granted in instances where the impacts of development on steeper slopes can at least theoretically be mitigated, and where such development can allow for greater clustering and increased open space.
(As of Coast Weekly''s press deadline, the September Ranch project was awaiting approval by the county planning commission to build 100 residential lots on an 891-acre parcel, that would include some development on slopes greater than 30 percent, the removal of 300 oak trees, and approximately 100,000 cubic yards of grading.)
"As a professional fish biologist, I think loosening the restrictions on sloping property is a future risk and I predict a perpetual problem," says Dettman. "Individual houses tend not to be a problem, but the cumulative impacts together create a problem."
In the absence of what critics say is a lack of comprehensive watershed planning and enforcement of mitigation measures that would minimize erosion and sedimentation, the county may be setting itself up for continued problems in Carmel Valley.
"The county is failing to enforce regulations to protect the valley and stop erosion," says George Boehlert, a member of the MPWMD''s Carmel River Advisory Committee and board member of the Carmel Valley Property Owners Association.
"This year, there was an immense amount of erosion in areas free from development," Boehlert concedes, "but anytime there is grading, road-cuts, or you modify or remove native vegetation, you''re making the problem worse," adds Boehlert. "Along the river itself there are a number of areas where people added bank modifications, ''rip rap'' and other material and this oftentimes results in erosion up- or downstream."
While hillside development may be the most obvious culprit concerning erosion problems, MPWMD Riparian Project Coordinator Nicole Nedeff says floodplain development is of equal concern.
"Several issues collectively increase erosion hazards on the river, but the most problematic is floodplain development," says Nedeff. "Floodplain development affects the natural wax and wane of a river. In response to high rain, a natural river like the Carmel needs to meander. Structures like bridges or any kind of facility built in a floodplain essentially narrows the area a river can be natural in, and affects the ability of the river to respond."
Despite shouldering most of the blame for problems that do arise from new development, William Phillips, Monterey County''s building and planning department director, says much of the criticism his department has received over code enforcement is somewhat misdirected.
"If you were to look at a complex development permit like Ca¤ada Woods with 100 conditions, you would see by each condition a number of different agencies [responsible for code enforcement]," says Phillips. "We are a coordinating department and we often don''t have the expertise for things like water, sewage or fire."
Nevertheless, Phillips acknowledges past problems with enforcement and says his agency is making an effort to improve monitoring of mitigation requirements for development.
"It''s fair to say historically county code enforcement including compliance efforts were complaint-based, but in the last three years, condition compliance has been elevated to a higher level," says Phillips. "Historically the county didn''t spend a lot of time on condition compliance other than something being required for further specific actions like road improvement plans for final subdivision maps.
"I think this current board of supervisors has a heightened level of concern over condition compliance, and two years ago authorized the hiring of three additional code enforcement people," adds Phillips.
"We are working with other departments to improve interdepartmental coordination and we are beginning to be more assertive in the area of condition compliance, but we''re not there yet."