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The Elkhorn Slough Permit Coordination Program

The Elkhorn Slough Partners in Restoration (PIR) permit coordination program is the pilot permit coordination program that created our model public-private effort to support local farmers, ranchers, and landowners who want to improve water quality and wildlife habitat on and near their lands. It was in the Elkhorn Slough watershed that Sustainable Conservation first began conversations with the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), the Resource Conservation District (RCD) of Monterey County, and regulators about how we could support private landowners in their voluntary conservation efforts. Elkhorn Slough PIR incorporates erosion control and riparian enhancement practices making it easier for the agricultural community to participate in implementing voluntary conservation projects. The project partners have crafted this program to enhance the Elkhorn Slough watershed's natural habitat and reduce erosion and sedimentation in both the upland areas and the coastal environment downstream.

The core of Elkhorn Slough PIR is the watershed-based agreements entered into by local, state and federal regulatory agencies and the NRCS and the RCD of Monterey County. These agreements create 'one-stop permit shopping' for farmers, ranchers, and landowners working with the NRCS and RCD of Monterey County on conservation projects. The watershed-based agreements covered ten different conservation practices and management measures in the Elkhorn Slough watershed. Under Elkhorn Slough PIR, a cooperator receiving technical and/or cost share assistance from the NRCS or the RCD of Monterey County is allowed to implement the associated conservation practices without seeking individual permits-provided they partner with the NRCS and RCD of Monterey County and carefully follow the terms of the program's agreements. The NRCS and RCD of Monterey County assist in project design and monitor implementation and maintenance of the conservation practices to ensure the projects comply with the program.

Regulatory Partners

Local, state and federal regulatory agencies and their staff have been great partners in this effort, providing important guidance and input. It is only with the support and advice of regulatory agency staff that we have been able to navigate the complex regulatory review process, and only with their active support that we were able to build our pilot PIR effort in the Elkhorn Slough and replicate the program in other important areas. Agencies signing on to this innovative 'one-stop permit shopping' include the California Department of Fish and Game, the California Coastal Commission, the Central Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service.

The Elkhorn Slough Watershed

The Elkhorn Slough Watershed is located in Monterey and San Benito counties on California's central coast. The watershed covers about 44,000 acres, including a mixture of habitat from tidal salt marsh to mixed oak woodlands to intensively farmed strawberry fields.

Elkhorn Slough is one of the last remaining coastal wetland marshes in California. It is home to an amazing variety of rare plants and animals, is an important stop for migrating birds on the Pacific Flyway, and functions as an important nursery area for marine fish.

The watershed includes the drainage area tributaries to Elkhorn and Moro Cojo Sloughs, including Carneros and Watsonville Creeks.

Problems Facing the Elkhorn Slough Watershed

Soils in the Elkhorn Slough watershed are deep, rich and sandy. The mild climate is favorable for strawberry production, as well as other crops such as broccoli and cauliflower. This rich land creates three to four crop cycles a year and the farmers are often tenants with year to year leases.

Unfortunately, the intense agricultural production has created a variety of problems for the area's natural resources. Rainfall and irrigation produce runoff that carries soils and associated pesticides and pollutants into the watercourses and into the ocean. Clearing stream banks of vegetation has reduced and degraded habitat for avian and aquatic species. Erosion has filled the streams and reduced their natural functioning. The degradation of habitat and water quality has contributed to the steep decline in Steelhead populations, and reduced the diversity of species and natural productivity in the area. Unabated, this continuing loss of natural functioning contributes to the overall decline of California's native plant and animal species and lowers the quality of life for our communities as well.

Working Together to Create Solutions

Erosion and natural resource degradation in the watershed must be controlled at the source. A watershed approach to resource management focuses attention on the cumulative effect of upland and upstream uses on the creeks, streams and rivers that eventually flow to the ocean. This means working with public and private groups, communities, and individuals to improve management practices in the watershed. Many landowners, government, and environmental groups are interested in promoting sustainable resource management practices in the Elkhorn Slough watershed. They came together to improve and protect the area's natural and agricultural resources through a variety of strategies. One of the primary strategies employed by PIR is to take advantage of information and technical assistance available through the U.S.D.A. to improve the management practices of agricultural operations.

Participating in the Permit Coordination Program

To participate in the Elkhorn Slough PIR permit coordination program, you must contact the local NRCS office or RCD of Monterey County to see if your project can be covered by the program. Partnering with the NRCS/RCD of Monterey County will ensure your project meets the regulatory agency conditions and will be covered under the watershed-based agreements. These organizations may also be able to assist you with project design, technical assistance and information on cost-sharing programs. You cannot participate in the Elkhorn Slough PIR without the assistance of the NRCS or RCD of Monterey County.