After a spirited fundraising campaign saved McGrath State Beach from closure, it now, one year later, looks like nothing more than a stagnant, mosquito-ridden tributary of the Santa Clara River.
While park officials, camping enthusiasts and environmentalists have all expressed their displeasure about the flooding in the past weeks, the Ventura Harbor business district is now chiming in.
“We do get tremendous amounts of business from McGrath campers,” said Lynn Mikelatos, owner of The Greek at the Harbor and Margarita Villa. With the campground closed, she said, the harbor business will undoubtedly feel the economic impact.
But what could be even more damaging to the area are the mosquitoes now attracted to the large body of stagnant water.
“People in the harbor are very concerned with mosquitoes,” she said. “ The way it looks now, it (the flooding) is not going to go away until next year. Somebody has got to step up.”
The county has brought in vector control, and Harbormaster Scott Miller said his team has put mosquito traps inside the harbor.
“We are doing everything we can, but they are breeding elsewhere,” said Miller. “This is a problem every year, but when the river backs up like this, the breeding area expands and it becomes more of an issue.”
The flooding at McGrath State Park has resulted because a sandy berm is blocking the Santa Clara River’s path to the sea. Each year, the berm builds up, but the force of the river during the winter months usually breaks through and rushes to the Pacific. The amount of rain this winter, however, failed to provide the necessary runoff.
Because the area has been designated a protected habitat for a number of endangered species, officials are not allowed to physically break the berm. Adding to the problem is the roughly 10 million gallons of treated wastewater being dumped daily into the Santa Clara river estuary by the city of Ventura, as permitted by the Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Board, which ultimately impacts the estuary ecology.
“Although the city has done lots to reduce (wastewater) nutrients, they can’t remove all from wastewater discharge,” said Paul Jenkin, environmental director of the Ventura County Chapter of the Surfrider Foundation. “The stagnant water with high nutrient level makes for algae blooms and dissolved oxygen,” which causes the death of other organisms, such as fish.
Many, like Mikelatos, are calling for emergency action to dig out the berm. While such action would alleviate the campsite flooding and possibly save the camping season and keep business as usual in the harbor, an immediate breach could also have serious consequences for the surrounding environment.
“It’s a tricky question,” said Jenkin, about the flooding. “The last time it was breached artificially there were several dead steelhead and tidewater goby because it was breached so rapidly. You end up with an altered ecosystem. … Once you start, it dumps and leaves lots of critters high and dry. It’s a very difficult question.”
Brian Brennan, a California Coastal commissioner and Ventura city councilman, said the Coastal Commission is currently looking at solutions to the McGrath situation. One option Brennan said the commission is considering is a water diversion pipe similar to that used for the Goleta Beach and slough area. It would be more of a managed release of water that would lessen the impact on the environment, he said, and would potentially be funded by a combination of agencies.
Supervisor John Zaragoza, who led the campaign two years ago to raise funds to keep McGrath open after state budget cuts and a faulty sewer line threatened its closure, said he’s still hoping for a natural breach and for the campground to open this summer.
In the meantime he said, he is talking to park officials about undertaking a study to move the McGrath campsites out of the flood zone so as to avoid this catastrophe year after year.
“The surrounding businesses are suffering,” Zaragoza said. “I definitely want it opened.”