Farmers and wetlands will thrive under a new plan unveiled by the Santa Cruz County Land Trust on Wednesday.
The Watsonville Slough Farm will preserve 500 acres of wetlands in and around Watsonville.
Since acquiring the land in 2009, the trust began plans to protect populations of creatures living in the ponds and marshlands while allowing farmers on the property to continue earning a living.
According the the land trust website, over 90 percent of California's wetlands have been destroyed since the region gained statehood. There are 249 species of birds in the area. Sixteen are listed as endangered and Matt Freeman of the land trust said that others could soon join state and federal lists if no land use changes are made.
The Watsonville Slough Farm stretches from just west of Highway 1 nearly to the Monterey Bay and currently has two agricultural companies leasing pieces of the land. Land Trust members were very conscious to avoid the adversarial relationship environmentalists and farmers have had at times in the past by bringing growers into the conversation right away.
Freeman said he had “very ambitious plans” at the start, and had to be adaptive as the two groups shared knowledge with each other.
“We got to see what has worked and what hasn't and export those idea to the rest of the Pajaro Valley,” said Freeman. “They taught me a lot. I didn't know how hard it is to turn around a tractor on a steep dirt slope.”
They now have a list of recommendations that will benefit animals and potentially save growers cash, by preventing waste water and nutrient run off from farms will benefit animals and plants while saving farmers cash.
“Farmers don't want runoff and erosion,” said Jim Robins, a conservation consultant working with the land trust. “We also don't want to go and and make large expensive changes that can be undone later.”
Robins explained by simply placing an elbow on a pipe in Chivos Pond near Highway 1, a suitable breeding ground for the endangered red-legged frog could be created. In recent years tad poles have died because of a pipe connecting the pond to other water ways.
“By getting that piece at a Home Depot we can provide enough water for them to breed and keep [predatory] fish out,” said Robins. “We are really looking at where we can get or most conservation bang for our buck.”
Their goals also include keeping much of the 500 acres open to recreational visitors for bird watching and hiking, through a system of signs that will educate them on where to go and which animals can be found in the area which includes Elkhorn and Hanson sloughs.
Some of the profits from the farms on the land are funding many of the improvements, and the land trust is also growing native grasses on some of the agricultural land. They say this is a double benefit because native species can enjoy the area and the seeds from the grasses can be sold to generate revenue.
The land trust plans to make most proposed changes in the next three years and predict management will be mostly hands off beyond that point. They also want to export the techniques that work for all parties involved to farms and ranches with livestock throughout the Pajaro Valley in the future.