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[whitespace] Elkhorn Slough Troubled Waters: Elkhorn Slough exists uneasily in the shadow of human encroachment.

Photograph by George Sakkestad


Elkhorn's Odyssey

From a pelican's-eye view, Elkhorn Slough is a lush wetland. To a developer, it's a wet dream.

By Christa Fraser

A REMNANT of California's once extensive coastal wetland system, Elkhorn Slough teems with life yet is heavily scarred by development. At the mouth of the slough, where the Monterey Bay comes pulsing in at high tide, loom the twin towers of the Moss Landing Power Plant. Below lies Moss Landing Harbor, home to the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute and a cluster of restaurants, while to the north, rotted boards and charred ruins hang over the water, and pelicans roost on abandoned pilings.

Across Highway 1, which bisects the slough's entrance, lies the meandering main channel. Here southern sea otters crunch on crabs, and terns, gulls and sand pipers by the hundreds forage. Boat skeletons line the shore, left to rot when their captains, possibly bootleggers, drove them into the shallows.

A mile or so in, where the slough makes a long turn, huge cylindrical storage tanks for the power plant hulk behind dairy farms, while to the left a large population of harbor seals suns itself. A shimmer of indigenous eelgrass waves in the water, haven for nudibranchs, fish and rays but a deathtrap for jellyfish surging in on the tide, who become entangled and expire. To the east, terns and long-legged avocets skim the mud for food. Train tracks, which cut through some of the slough's channels, are flanked by buried fiber-optic cables for MCI, Quest and Sprint.

On either side are rolling hills and grasslands dotted with oak, manzanita and eucalyptus trees. Toward the back of the slough, strawberry fields mosaic the hillsides, as the waterway splinters into a maze of shallow channels, where white egrets hunt.

At Kirby Park, a public parking lot and boat ramp for the slough, families launch fishing boats and drop canoes and kayaks from the small dock. A handful of modest farmhouses lines Elkhorn Road, where the slough tapers off. Chickens and goats amble over the muddy lots. Two creeks drain into the slough there during the rainy season.

Up the northern bluff, past the slumping hillsides and stands of introduced yet ubiquitous eucalyptus trees, nestles an idyllic golf course that has been there since 1922, before the power plant came in 1957, before the strawberry fields were planted, before the brown pelicans were endangered, and before the population of the Central Coast exploded.

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Power Play: Duke Energy Corporation hopes to expand Moss Landing Power Plant without endangering Elkhorn Slough, but the Sierra Club has its doubts.

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A Model Plan

CHARLES LEIDER taps on the glass cover of the three-dimensional architectural model located in his clubhouse lobby and points to the middle of what looks like a golfer's birthday cake, complete with fairway, miniature trees and little painted houses, and bordered by a painted representation of Elkhorn Slough.

"It's an ambitious project we have," he proclaims.

The model represents the expansion plans for the Pajaro Valley Golf Course, plans that call for building 172 housing units, adding nine holes to the existing 18-hole course and expanding the clubhouse by 6,650 feet, all on 272 acres. The model maps out the location of each lot, the surrounding homes and the adjacent features of Elkhorn Slough. Given the blueprint configurations of the proposed parcels, the housing could extend to within 200 feet of the edges of the slough.

Leider has envisioned this project since he bought the Pajaro Valley Golf Course and the acres surrounding it in 1961. An ardent golfer, he played on the PGA tour from 1960 until 1975.

"I've lived here since 1961, when I started formulating the plan," Leider says. "I moved away in 1967, but I've always had it in the back of my mind to come back. I like the community. I have ties here."

Although Leider has played on some of the most elite golf courses in the world, his plans for the expanded Pajaro Valley course are humble by comparison. He does not intend for his course to become the next tournament stopover, nor will it be as cost prohibitive as some local clubs, which can charge more than $100 dollars in greens fees.

Rather, Leider says, "I want to build a user-friendly golf course, something the entire community can use, and keep it affordable."

He also plans to have more golf training for youths and seniors. "The golf course is premier to what I am trying to accomplish," he says.

Yet looking at the architect's model, not just the golf course and clubhouse expansions stand out. One hundred and seventy-two small, numbered parcels that circle the course and run to the edge of the slough occupy the majority of the miniature astro turf.

Leider explains, "I have about 15 acres that are currently zoned for 180 units. What we propose is to take 172 units and spread [them] out over 272-1/2 acres. So we're taking the concentration out of one area and spreading it over the entire parcel of property. In doing this, we're very cautious of keeping environmentally sensitive."

The Cost of Green

DURING THE waning days of the Ohlone, early settlers reported skies so full of birds they sometimes blocked the sun. In those days, the majority of what is now California consisted of wetlands and must have reflected in its waters the mass of honking and calling birds, until sky and ground were an avian swarm.

It is still possible to enjoy a similar experience in Elkhorn Slough--especially when Amtrak's California Zephyr rumbles through and scares up thousands of birds from the mudflats and salt marshes.

The slough, considered by many to be an environmental asset of both local and global significance, occupies a special niche in the ecosystem of Monterey Bay. Located on the Pacific Flyway migration zone, it attracts as many as 200 bird species daily, which converge on the slough to forage, breed and rest.

Several endangered and threatened species like the brown pelican, southern sea otter and Santa Cruz long-toed salamander make the slough their home. As many as 80 species of fish shelter here at some stage in their development and a huge biomass of larvae, algae and plankton surges through its waters to form the base of the food chain.

Yet it isn't just individual species that are at risk. Wetland ecosystems in general are on the verge of extinction in California. According to the website for the CEQA (California Environmental Quality Act), the amount of wetlands lost to reclamation and development in this state is considered to be the greatest in the nation. California wetlands once covered more than four million acres but have since diminished to 300,000 acres. A vestige of that once extensive system, Elkhorn Slough is the second largest coastal wetland left in the state, with San Francisco Bay, among the most developed areas in California, being the largest.

"This is not the time to add more threats to what is already threatened," warns Gillian Taylor, Chair of the Ventana Chapter of the Sierra Club.

At one time California was strung with a necklace of waterways that supported abundant wildlife. Now, however, an aerial view of California reveals a mosaic of huge tracts of developed land replete with the requisite strip malls, subdivisions, swimming pools and golf courses of nearly every suburban American neighborhood.

In fact, at least one new golf course opens in the U.S. every day, according to the National Audubon Society Magazine in an article titled "The Greening of America." While golf courses provide a popular form of recreation, they contribute heavily to plant monoculture, where only a limited selection of cultivated plants dominates the landscape. They also introduce pollutants, particularly nitrates, pesticides and fungicides, into the environment through runoff.

Though some oaks and eucalyptus would be removed to make way for the golf course, most of the mature trees are scheduled to be left standing. Nonetheless, the rolling grassland would be exchanged for fairway greens and suburban landscaping. A big concern is the amount of water required to keep the fairways looking picture perfect.

Leider maintains that he has hired a team of architects and consultants to develop an environmentally sensitive course. He is attempting to have the course certified as an Audubon International Cooperative Sanctuary System by Audubon International--an organization formed by golfers to promote their courses and in no way affiliated with the National Audubon Society, a prestigious environmental organization.

Leider and his team have spent three years developing the plans. To begin with, Leider took 80 acres of his own land that supported berries--crops that require large amounts of water and pesticides--and fallowed it.

Meanwhile, he proposes to divert the runoff from neighboring berry farms to his property (although it is up to the farmers to control their own runoff), where it will funnel into catch basins. Leider says that he will use this water, which will be able to percolate through the soil before entering the slough, to irrigate his course.

Additionally, Leider expects to update his "ancient," as he calls it, irrigation system so that the expanded course will actually need 10 fewer acre-feet of water per year.

Although the catch basins will provide both a means to reuse agricultural runoff and a degree of filtration, there is concern that the toxic runoff of pesticides, fungicides and nutrients will enter the slough, particularly during the rainy season, potentially affecting aquatic plants, algae and plankton at the base of the Elkhorn Slough food chain.

According to Kenton Parker of the Elkhorn Slough National Estuarine Research Reserve, pesticides such as DDT nearly led to a collapse of some bird populations, like Caspian terns and brown pelicans. Recently, traces of the chemical have resurfaced in the watershed, further threatening some species. Although the bird population of Elkhorn Slough appears to be thriving now, it is unclear what kind of pressures will threaten it again.

The golf course, however, will only be partially responsible for contributing to the pollution entering the slough and for increasing the demands on a limited water supply. The environmental pressures that 172 housing units would exert on the slough are bound to be even greater. While agricultural land and golf course greens can be fallowed during a drought, family dwellings cannot.

Golf Course
Photograph by George Sakkestad

From Tee to Shining Tee: The Pajaro Valley Golf Course offers scenic diversions to duffers.

Moratorium

CITING THREE main water concerns--seawater intrusion, nitrate contamination and overdraft--Monterey County has issued an 18-month development moratorium for north county, which includes Elkhorn Slough.

According to Mike Novo of the Monterey County Planning Department, "The bottom line for the moratorium was to take a time-out to examine water issues and solutions for north county."

The moratorium went into effect on Aug. 9, 2000. The Pajaro Valley Golf Course expansion plans (and possibly other sizable subdivisions, such as 102 residential units proposed by Charles B. Allen for nearby Hall Road) will be grandfathered into consideration, however, because they were submitted before that date.

But consider this: the water issues existed before the project and will only be exacerbated by developments of this size. According to the Monterey County Planning Department's website, north county is experiencing greater than 100-percent overdraft on its water supply. Simply put, the demands for water have exceeded the supply, resulting in a substantial drop in the groundwater table. Putting in 172 housing units will worsen an already dire situation.

Also, because the water supply is at overdraft--and in many cases the water table is below sea level--seawater intrusion is occurring in nearly half of area wells. When the aquifer or well is taxed to such a low level, saltwater creeps into it. This process spoils the wells permanently.

Leider's plan is situated on Springfield Terrace, an area that, due to its unique soils, has a zero recharge capacity.

Says Leider, "I have five wells on the property--that's a lot of subterranean water I don't use. But that's not the water that I am going to supply to the homesites, I am using city water [from the Pajaro-Sunny Mesa Community Service District]."

The plans, however, state that "the golf course will continue to be watered through the use of existing on-site wells." The "city water" will be supplied from the same overdrawn hydrogeologic area, according to Carolyn Anderson, co-chair of North Monterey County General Plan Update Citizens Oversight Coalition.

When asked whether or not seawater intrusion will be a problem, Leider says, "No, absolutely not. I have 177 water hookups and 180 sewer hookups, which I purchased many years ago, and I am making them available to my neighbors."

These proposed hookups, though, exist mostly outside of existing service areas, requiring amendments to the Water District Boundaries and approval by governing agencies.

The project--currently a mix of conservation easement, agricultural and rural residential zones, with one high-density parcel located in the middle where 84 condominium units have been proposed--would require several variances and zoning changes, including building new roadways along the edge of the slough. The plan would change the area into high- and low-density residential zoning.

Leider plans to build new private roadways as well as extend Bay Farms Road and improve Hudson Landing Road so that residents will be able to access the homes he wants to construct there. Sedimentation from roadwork and from excavating lots will likely drain directly into the slough waters.

Interestingly, though, the Notice of Preparation to the Planning Department asks for a 25-percent slope exception for development on Hudson Landing Road; later, the same notice claims that no development is planned on slopes exceeding 25 percent.

Some of the hillsides around Hudson Landing have been creeping since the El Niños of three years ago. At the base of a site where some of the single-family homes are planned, and where stakes marking lots have already been planted, a large Spanish-style house has an enormous blue tarp behind it to keep the unstable soil from lifting the house off its foundation in the event of a big rainfall. Several earth slumps located in the middle of some proposed lots are visible from Elkhorn Road.

Leider's plan also claims to protect the viewshed, but Mari Kloeppel, of Friends, Artists and Neighbors of Elkhorn Slough, disagrees with that contention. Kloeppel and several other concerned citizens took a boat trip with Elkhorn Slough Safaris and mapped out the plans along the ridge line. According to Kloeppel, "The project will be visible from much of the main channel and many trailside vistas of the slough, not to mention from many spots along Elkhorn Road, a county-recognized scenic roadway."

The roadways in the area are also deemed by the county to be at the most unsafe and worst levels. For a part of the county that is under a moratorium for most water using developments, including agriculture, for reasons such as overdraft, nitrate contamination and seawater intrusion, it is, as Leider says, "an ambitious project."

Creep and Crawl

OTHER EVEN MORE AMBITIOUS projects, such as Cisco's Coyote Valley Project, could adversely affect the slough, and Harkins Slough could be compromised by a newly approved high school, which Watsonville sorely needs. Indeed, with escalating real estate prices and a population influx into the Central Coast, it seems inevitable that projects similar to Leider's will continue to be proposed.

According to Mark Silberstein of the Elkhorn Slough Foundation, 5,500 parcels exist within the slough, 75 percent of which could be developed. "There is a huge development pressure on the Elkhorn Watershed because it is the closest link to the Silicon Valley without the high prices," he says.

Furthermore, if Leider's project is approved, Kloeppel adds, "it will set a precedent for development in and around Elkhorn Slough."

An Environmental Impact Report, which must pass CEQA guidelines, is still pending for the Pajaro Valley Golf Course project, and following its release, the planning commission will hold hearings on the project and give the public a chance to address their concerns. Says Novo, "We are taking all projects that were submitted by the moratorium date, and they are being analyzed case by case. There is no guarantee that they will be approved."

Proponents of development in the Elkhorn Slough watershed cite its nonpristine history whenever environmental issues arise. With the Duke Energy Power Plant at its entrance--not to mention the harbor (which widened the mouth of the slough in the 1940s and forever altered the slough's tidal volume) or the magnesium extraction plant, the shooting range and the dairies, the fiber-optic cables and a train track that causes a punctual shower of sanderlings, terns and gulls daily--Elkhorn Slough is a far cry from a pristine ecosystem.

Yet in spite of it all, Elkhorn Slough sees an annual increase in animal and plant life. It can be argued that the slough can handle more development, since the ecosystem appears healthy. But is Elkhorn Slough thriving in spite of those pressures, or is it because there are so few places like it left that the birds, bugs and mammals have no other choice?

If it is a case of Elkhorn Slough being one of the last remaining sites of its kind, then at what point will more development compromise it as well?

As Patricia Madducheck of the Sierra Club says, "Some resources are scarcer than others. Coastal wetlands are among the rarest."

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From the January 24-31, 2001 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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