Current Status of McGrath State Beach
McGrath State Beach has been in the news quite a lot in recent years. First, it came under threat of closure when the Department of Parks and Recreation (State Parks) faced an annual $22 million cut in its budget. McGrath, along with 69 other California State Parks, was placed upon a closure list, partially because of a $500,000 deferred maintenance project at the park that could not be completed.
Community members, campers, elected officials, business leaders, and members of the media rallied together to call attention to the park’s plight and raise funds needed to complete the project (replacement of a lift station and sewer line needed to remove waste from the park) and keep the park open. Thanks to their hard work and creativity, the funds were raised, the facilities repaired, and the park was reopened to the public in July 2012.
Then came the water, later on that fall.
One of the things that makes McGrath special is its location next to the Santa Clara River. The mouth of this river is the terminus of a HUGE watershed that stretches all the way up into the Santa Clarita region and beyond. Many species call McGrath and its adjoining estuary home. Many more species use the area as a rest stop as a part of their annual migration. The nine different ecosystems at McGrath provide a wide variety of habitats for many, many different species. Birders are especially fond of McGrath for these reasons.
A sandbar at the mouth of the Santa Clara River is a natural feature that appears and disappears at McGrath, and is a feature related to the natural hydrology of the place. This sandbar, when intact, holds back the water in the river, swelling the estuary in depth and volume. When it breaches, a vast mudflat is revealed (bringing in new varieties of birds that prefer to feed in mudflats). However, in a dry year, like we had in 2012-2013, not enough water flows into the estuary all at once, and there is not enough pressure on the sandbar to break it open. So the water in the estuary remains until the next big rain event, which could be as long as a full year away.
Another thing that makes McGrath special is that some of that special habitat within its boundaries is increasingly rare. The estuary and coastal dune environments in particular are very delicate and prone to human development elsewhere. The species that depend on these environments are under intense ecological pressure. So we find rare and endangered species, from the tiny Western snowy plovers to sleek and speedy least terns, from the elusive and creepy legless lizard to the shy tidewater goby.
McGrath State Beach, and the adjoining Santa Clara River Estuary Preserve, sit alongside the wastewater treatment plant for the city of Ventura.
The treatment plant discharges up to 9,000,000 gallons of treated wastewater into the estuary per day, every day.
If winter brings heavy rains to the Santa Clara River watershed, the resulting rush of water causes the sandbar to breach, and all of the water (natural and introduced) flows into the ocean. This last winter, when it did not, the water from the treatment plant had to find somewhere else to go. So it found its way into the park at McGrath.
At first, the usual areas became inundated: the day use parking lot, and low-lying channels and depressions. Section 3 became soggy. The thalweg along the dunes grew and disconnected the park from the beach. Then the water kept coming, and by the end of March, the entire park, except for maybe seven or so campsites, was under water.
A common question we get from people is why doesn’t State Parks just breach the sand berm unnaturally? After all, the previous property owners used to do it, so what’s the big deal? The answer to this is closely tied to the mission of State Parks, which is to balance recreation with resource protection. There are many endangered or threatened species, such as the Western snowy plover, California least tern, tidewater goby, and steelhead trout that call the estuary and the sand bar home. As a part of the natural cycle, there is a season (before nesting season begins) during which the berm would be breached IF there is a heavy downpour. In that case, the organisms that were just mentioned would either not be onsite yet, or have adaptations that enable them to overcome being flushed from their homes (i.e. the fish) and would be able to find a new one (because other estuaries in the region would be having a big “flushing” event as well, due to the rainstorm). In that case, it even helps a bit with genetic diversity. And as part of the natural cycle, without that big downpour, the berm just stays put, along with the creatures. And during a dry year, the water level in the estuary would naturally be low, and the park would not flood. What is the issue, therefore, is not the berm, but the extra water being added to the habitat on a daily basis.
Breaching the berm, unnaturally and out of season, is not the solution to the problem created by another agency discharging water onto State Parks property. After all, you’d not be pleased if your neighbor dumped water onto your property every day, and then told you, “Get over it” or “So sue me” when you asked them to stop.
To see photos chronicling the flooding of McGrath during the 2012-2013 season, please visit our Facebook album.
Except for four weekends in the fall of 2013, McGrath has been closed to all camping and day-use for fall and winter of 2012, and all of 2013. (For Labor Day weekend and weekends in October) The closure of the park causes significant problems, including:
- a loss of recreational opportunities for people, both visitors and members of the local communities
- a loss of revenue for the State Parks system
- a hit to the local economy, which feels the loss of hundreds of thousands of visitors to the area during a typical camping season (gas, groceries, firewood, and other expenditures add up)
- significant damage to the park’s vegetation, facilities, and infrastructure
- increased problems for maintenance and law enforcement staff, as a closed park attracts criminal activity and vandalism
The only reason that the park was able to open at all in 2013 was because of a joint effort across several agencies to pump water from the estuary, into the ocean, for several months, which decreased the overall volume enough to let the park re-emerge and dry out. Just in time, one section of the park was able to open for camping during Labor Day weekend, but with compromised facilities, as severe vandalism prevented the restrooms from opening. (Some of the very same facilities that received upgrades in 2012.)
And when the permit for the pumps expired, the water level starting increasing again. Within days of the pumps being shut off, Parks staff observed water creeping back into the park. As we write this, at the end of October, it is apparent that the park will not host any more camping in 2013. And as for 2014, your guess is as good as ours.
The permit that allows the wastewater treatment plant to discharge its effluent into the estuary is up for renewal.
The claim that the 9 million gallons of water being added to this area daily is an “enhancement” to the natural habitat is being challenged by State Parks and other stakeholders. We believe that this claim of enhancement is not supported by good scientific data.
The Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board will be making a decision about this claim that will affect our park and our ability, as citizens, to use what is ours. We would like to invite you to read the formal comments submitted to the LA RWQCB by the Senior Environmental Scientist for our district, and to get involved. Decisions made now will potentially impact this park for a generation.
Water board responses to the State Parks comments can be viewed here. Start on page 28 of this document to read the responses.
Our organization, along with representatives from State Parks and the Ventura Audubon, made public comment at the hearing conducted by the Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board on Thursday, November 7 in Simi Valley. Download the agenda HERE. You can read our executive director’s comments here.
That hearing saw the permit renewed, but with important stipulations attached. The City of Ventura was ordered, as a condition of the permit, to develop a flood management plan for the park, with State Parks involved as a key stakeholder. This is a significant step in the right direction for McGrath State Beach.
We Have a Breach!
Sometime during the evening of Monday, February 10th (or early morning hours of the 11th), the sand berm was breached. A lifeguard on early-morning patrol was the first State Parks personnel to discover the breach. At this time, there is no specific evidence to indicate that the berm was breached unnaturally (which is illegal), but those who have watched the berm closely for many years suggest that the water level and tide action was probably not enough for the breach to occur naturally. You can read the blog posting for the breach event here.
With the sudden outflow of water from the estuary, the park quickly drained. Hundreds upon hundreds of carp, which are invasive freshwater fish, were flushed out into the ocean and quickly died. (One Facebook friend of ours counted nearly 500 washed up on the beach south of the park on a short walk!) Many, many others were left stranded in the park by the quickly receding waters, left to flop on sudden mudflats, or left to gasp their last few days in shallow, muddy ponds. Biologists from State Parks and Fish and Wildlife rushed over to the park to assess the impact on wildlife. No steelhead trout or tidewater gobies were found stranded. However, in addition to the carp already mentioned, several nonnative crayfish and highly invasive and voracious African clawed toads were found.
As you might imagine, local news outlets jumped on the story. The VC Star ran an article before the day was out. Within a few days of the breach, natural wave action had sealed up the breach again with sand, and water was starting to collect in the estuary again.
Then a pair of dramatic rainstorms barreled through the region from February 26-March 2. The Santa Clara River watershed is HUGE, so an enormous volume of water pushed through the berm once more, widening the gap and eroding away some of sandy “cliffs” that were left behind before. The park was flooded once more, small pools that had been drying suddenly refreshed, mud that had been cracking now soft and gooey again. The few carp still struggling to survive in slowly shrinking ponds were given a slight reprieve.
The VC Star followed up with another article. Work continues on the park.
We will be hosting a volunteer service event in honor of Earth Day at McGrath State Beach on Saturday, April 12th, in partnership with Ventura County Supervisor John Zaragoza and SoCal Gas. We will be looking for 150 good volunteers to help us out that day. Please visit our page on this event to find out more details and register online.
We need your help in this struggle to keep our park dry, healthy, and open.
We will be updating this page as this situation continues to develop. If you would like to get involved with the new fight to save McGrath, please contact us using the form below, so we can add you to a specific and targeted mailing list regarding this topic. Please also make sure to visit and Like our Facebook page, as we communicate through that platform nearly every day.
McGrath SB will be open for camping on a very limited basis starting April 11, 2014. Read the State Parks press release here.
In the Press: (other articles indicated in the body of this page above as well)