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  • North County Watersheds

    North County Watersheds

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North County Watersheds

The North County watersheds are located at the northern coastal end of Monterey County and include lower Pajaro River, Elkhorn, Moro Cojo and Tembladero Sloughs and Gabilan Creek & the Reclamation Ditch.The sloughs and the Reclamation Ditch all drain to the ocean at the Moss Landing mouth of Elkhorn Slough. Tidal action that draws water up into Elkhorn Slough means that water quality of all those waterways also directly affects Elkhorn Slough. Immediately to the north, the Pajaro River forms the boundary between Monterey and Santa Cruz Counties, so only a portion of the lower Pajaro River watershed lies in Monterey County. More information on the Pajaro River watershed and activities within it can be found at

Land use in northern Monterey County is dominated by vegetable and berry production intermixed with the cities of Salinas and Castroville, unincorporated communities, rural residential, range and woodlands, and protected lands focused around the Elkhorn Slough National Estuarine Research Reserve (ESNERR). The reserve harbors the largest tract of tidal salt march in California, outside the San Francisco Bay. This ecological treasure provides habitat for plants, animals, and more than 340 species of birds, and is a major fish nursery for the region. In recognition of its unique resource values, the state of California created the Elkhorn Slough State Marine Conservation Area (SMCA) and State Marine Reserve (SMR) and the Moro Cojo Slough SMR nearby to enhance stewardship opportunities for the waterbodies themselves.

While agriculture is vital to Monterey County’s economy, erosion of agricultural land is a major cause of nutrient loading, sedimentation, and pesticide impacts on this and other waterbodies in the region. The ‘strawberry hills’ that dominate much of north Monterey County have long been challenged by the high risk for erosion associated with cultivation on sandy, sloped soils, some of which have been called ‘sugar soils’ precisely for that reason. The Elkhorn Slough watershed is typified by highly erodible soils and steep slopes that when farmed without regard to soil conservation, average 33 tons per acre of soil in field and gully erosion. This not only pollutes downstream wetlands, but in some cases buries them under feet of sand.


The Elkhorn Slough Foundation and ESNERR have conducted extensive resource assessments and planning for the Elkhorn Slough Watershed, and the Central Coast Wetlands Group together with CSUMB developed a Watershed Restoration and Management Plan for the Moro Cojo Slough Watershed. The RCD of Monterey County and the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service has partnered with the all of these entities along with the Monterey County Agricultural Commissioner to assist farmers with erosion prevention projects and practices in these watersheds. Work in the north county places particular emphasis on meeting needs of the region’s historically underserved Hispanic farming community, which constitutes eighty percent of the farmers in the Elkhorn Slough watershed, for which materials and service are provided in Spanish and English. The RCDMC, USDA NRCS and the Ag Land-Based Training Association (ALBA) have long partnered to provide bi-lingual training, demonstration, and implementation support in the region.

Erosion Control

During the past two decades, intensive outreach and technical support efforts from the RCDMC and the NRCS have succeeded in reaching a majority of the more than 250 agricultural producers in the watershed. We estimate that over 35% of the annual sedimentation load to Elkhorn Slough is now prevented by implementation of voluntary soil conservation practices on private land. However, hillside erosion in the watershed is still dramatic.

Gabilan and Santa Rita Creeks and the Reclamation Ditch

Gabilan Creek drains the south face of Fremont Peak, running south into Salinas and conjoining with Natividad and Alisal Creeks at the Carr Lake floodway in the middle of the city to drain westward to Moss Landing through the Reclamation Ditch. The ‘Rec Ditch’ was created in the early 20th Century to facilitate drainage of the creeks and marshes in the lower Salinas Valley for flood protection and to facilitate conversion of the rich wetland soils for agricultural production. Tembladero Slough and Santa Rita (or Little Bear) Creek run from the northwest side of Salinas to drain into the Rec Ditch near Castroville. Organizations and local citizens have been interested in their potential values as natural and recreational areas, partly because of the passage of these waterways’ through and proximity to urbanized areas, agencies, although the streams run almost entirely within private property and high-production farmlands outside of the city limits. The CSUMB Watershed Institute conducted a Carr Lake Watershed/Reclamation Ditch Watershed Assessment and Management Strategy in 2003-2005 with the Monterey County Water Resources Agency. A Reclamation Ditch Improvement Plan Advisory Committee was formed during this same period to coordinate diverse input for the MCWRA for managing the Reclamation Ditch for multiple benefits in addition to flood control and drainage. In 2014, partner organizations in the Greater Monterey County IRWM (Integrated Regional Water Management) Planning group selected the Gabilan/Rec Ditch watershed as a focus for small watershed collaborative planning, for which RCDMC staff provided facilitation and stakeholder interviews.