Elkhorn Slough Watershed

Permit Coordination Program

2001 Implementation Report Summary

Report prepared by

USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service

Elkhorn Slough Watershed Project

In fulfillment of terms of agreement with:

United States Army Corps of Engineers

United States Fish and Wildlife Service

California Department of Fish and Game

California Coastal Commission

Central Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board

County of Monterey

 

 

 

 

 

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February 2002

 

Permit Coordination for Resource Conservation on Farms

Summary

The Elkhorn Slough Watershed Permit Coordination Program was established in the fall of 1998 when six local, state and federal agencies entered into watershed-based agreements with the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service and the Resource Conservation District of Monterey County for natural resource conservation projects in the Elkhorn Slough Watershed in northern Monterey County, California. The program permits NRCS and the RCD to provide farmers and land managers with design and construction specifications for resource enhancing projects utilizing 10 pre-approved conservation practices. Special conditions on the timing, location, and method of installation are included in the plans provided to the participants to avoid or mitigate negative impacts on water quality and sensitive species and habitats.

Twenty six projects were completed in the first 3 years of the program. A total of 47 conservation practices were used alone, or in combination, to capture upland agricultural erosion, stabilize gullies, and protect eroding stream banks at the 26 project sites. All of the projects installed between 1998 and 2000 are performing as planned with minor maintenance on a few projects. In 2001, these projects continued to prevent an estimated 3590 cubic yards of sediment from being transported downstream into riparian and wetland habitats (see Table 1 below).

In 2001, two additional conservation projects were completed, raising the total number of completed projects to 28 during the first four years of the program. The 2 new projects resulted in 2,059 cubic yards of sediment being removed from stream channels or prevented from leaving farms.

As a result of projects implemented during the first four years of the project, an estimated 30,603 cubic yards (41,314 tons) of soil have been prevented from washing downstream into the sensitive wetlands of Elkhorn Slough. This is equivalent to a line of full sized pick-up trucks carrying soil and parked end to end from Salinas to Santa Rosa (156 miles)!

Table 1: Summary of Permit Coordination Program Results

 

Project

Year

# of

Projects

Reduction in Sediment Transported Downstream

Benefits in

1998

(cu.yds.)

Benefits in 1999

(cu.yds.)

Benefits in

2000

(cu.yds.)

Benefits in 2001

(cu.yds.)

Cumulative benefits

(cu.yds.)

1998

15

8,953

1,623

4,457

957

15,990

1999

9

--

5,288

2,348

2,348

9,984

2000

2

--

--

2,285

285

2,570

2001

2

--

--

--

2,059

2,059

Totals:

28

8,953

6,911

9,090

5,649

30,603

The Permit Coordination Program continues to alleviate the disincentive farmers and land managers experience when considering the regulatory review and permitting process when they wish to restore or enhance natural resource conditions on their property. Since 1998, the program has facilitated the installation of 11 water and sediment control basins on agricultural lands, and the restoration and enhancement of 8,575 feet of stream channel. Without the Permit Coordination Program, these projects would either not have been attempted, or would have been done without any form of agency guidance or oversight. The Program provides land managers with an alternative to the time-consuming and costly process of multiple permit applications, while ensuring that they utilize the regulatory agency approved conservation practice standards of the NRCS and the RCD.

Project Background

The Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), and Sustainable Conservation, a non-profit environmental organization, worked in concert to design this innovative program to offer "one stop regulatory shopping" to land managers willing to implement conservation practices that result in net environmental benefits. The program is available to farmers and ranchers in the Elkhorn Slough Watershed who voluntarily seek to reduce agricultural run off and protect natural resources on their lands.

Ten conservation practices recommended by the Department of Agriculture and the Environmental Protection Agency have been conditioned and authorized in advance by the participating federal, state and local agencies (see Table 2) through multiple watershed-based permits issued to the NRCS and Resource Conservation District of Monterey County. Any farmer receiving technical and/or cost share assistance from the NRCS can now implement the practices without the need to seek individual project permits. NRCS assists in project design and monitors implementation and maintenance of the practices to ensure performance in conformance with the conditions of the permits.

Table 2: Participating Agencies and Form of Agreement

Agency

Regulatory Agreement

United States Army Corps of Engineers

Section 404 Regional Permit

United States Fish and Wildlife Service

Programmatic Biological and Conference Opinion and Avoidance Measures

California Coastal Commission

Federal Consistency Review

California Department of Fish and Game

1601 Streambed Alteration Memorandum of Understanding

Regional Water Quality Control Board

Section 401 Certification

County of Monterey

Erosion and Grading Ordinance Exemptions

This program removes an institutional disincentive to improved land management. Farmers are always seeking ways to improve the value and productivity of their land and protect their investment in their crops but often hesitate to adopt changes that introduce uncertainty or could negatively affect the economic return on their operations. Voluntary, proactive partnerships on private property to install conservation practices have been limited by fear among many landowners that government regulatory review will be complex, costly and time-consuming.

Typical agency review processes intended to protect natural values can act as disincentives to voluntary initiatives to reduce non-point source pollution and enhance habitat. Most farmers will continue with current land use practices if the time and financial costs of seeking governmental approvals exceed the perceived benefits of engaging in conservation activities. The challenge identified in the Elkhorn Slough watershed was to find a way to both provide incentives and overcome the disincentives to good land management.

The one-stop regulatory shopping program, combined with the ongoing technical and financial assistance programs of NRCS and the RCD, effectively removes disincentives and provides incentives for voluntary enhancement and sustainable management of agricultural and natural resources in the Elkhorn Slough Watershed. Each of the agencies involved in this interagency coordination effort deserves recognition for creating an efficient watershed-level review process that is easy for farmers to use while ensuring the integrity of the agency resource protection and environmental quality mandates.

Fourth Year Accomplishments

Nine projects were proposed in 2001. Out of nine proposed projects, only two were completed under the permit agreements in 2001. These two projects involved 600 feet of stream channel stabilization and the construction of an upland sediment basin combined with improved farm management. Implementation of these two projects removed an estimated 2059 cubic yards (2,780 tons) of sediment that would have otherwise been transported further downstream. The projects resulted in the enhancement of riparian corridor habitat and function.

Delays in implementation of the other proposed projects were caused by several factors including a lack of landowner commitment to quick installation, a backlog in NRCS and RCD completion of final designs, and discovery of a listed species at one project site. The delayed projects will be completed as planned or revised in 2002.

Reflections from the Field

The fourth year of the project presented many challenges for the new staff at the NRCS and RCD Salinas Field Office. Daniel Mountjoy and Sustainable Conservation are working with staff to ensure continuity in the Permit Coordination process by providing training and consultation on implementation of the program. The staff is committed to applying the original benefits of the program, and to enhancing the environmental qualities of the watershed. Permit requirements have relieved landowners of the burden of acquiring permits, but have increased staff time involved to learn and implement the program.

Some challenges in 2001 were due to lack of grower or owner commitment to complete projects due to growing season or time constraints, the large Elkhorn Project workload backlog from previous understaffing, and encountering Threatened or Endangered Species (the Monterey Spineflower) in one case. The promise of the Permit Coordination Program has resulted in unmet expectations when limited NRCS and RCD staffing is unable to provide designs for an increasing number of referrals from the Monterey County Planning and Building and Environmental Health Departments. The County would like to see landowners voluntarily comply with erosion ordinances and frequently refers out-of-compliance landowners to the NRCS and RCD to develop conservation plans and expedite permitting through the Coordination Program. One method to expedite compliance has been to offer these land managers recommendations on vegetative on-farm treatments that do not require complex designs or permits. This report does not track the number of projects completed in this manner.

An expanded reward of the Permit Coordination Program is the interest being expressed by watershed managers, agency personnel (at the field as well as state level), and farm organizations. These individuals and groups would like to implement similar agreements in watersheds throughout California. Sustainable Conservation is actively working in partnership with NRCS and RCD field personnel on implementing the program in the Morro Bay watershed in San Luis Obispo County, the Salinas River Watershed in Monterey County, the Tomales Bay watershed of Marin County and the Navarro River watershed of Mendocino County. Additional sites throughout California are being considered for projects in the coming years. One site that should benefit from the lessons learned with the Elkhorn Slough Program is a proposed Permit Coordination Program for Santa Cruz County where many of the farming conditions and species of concern are similar. It is imperative that the program be "user-friendly", efficient for use by NRCS and RCD, and that it be promoted equitably wherever it is applied.

As the Elkhorn Slough Watershed Permit Coordination Program gains experience and recognition, it should become easier for the participants in other sites to work out agreements based on templates developed for Elkhorn. The process of negotiating the special conditions on specific practices and selecting the appropriate form of agreement (e.g. MOU, Regional Permit, Federal Consistency Review, etc.) can be further facilitated if leadership personnel in the participating agencies are familiar with what has been accomplished in the Elkhorn Slough Watershed. Daniel Mountjoy (NRCS) and Bob Neale (Sustainable Conservation) continue to present the benefits of permit coordination to various state and national agencies when requested. Sustainable Conservation is serving on a State Task Force at the request of Secretary of Resources, Mary Nichols, to explore how resource agencies can reduce permitting barriers for restoration projects. Both NRCS and Sustainable Conservation are committed to promoting this model of regulatory coordination to other regions. When regulatory disincentives to natural resource enhancement are removed, landowners have demonstrated that they are willing to invest financial and material resources to improve water quality, wildlife habitat, and soil resources.

Photo Documentation

Water and Sediment Control Basin Project

 

Overview of the area before the water and sediment control basin was constructed near San Miguel Canyon Rd. Willows had colonized in the area where irrigation water drains to a low point in the field. Sediment accumulates at the bottom of the slope on the farm road. During large storms this sediment was carried down the county road side ditch across neighboring properties towards Carneros Creek and Elkhorn Slough.

Water and Sediment Control Basin shortly after construction was completed in 2001, and after the berm was planted with an erosion control grass mixture as the Critical Area Planting. Note the standing water from irrigation and storm event in December 2001. An energy dissipater from the underground outlet (not shown) allows water and sediment from the cropped field to enter the basin without eroding the cut bank.