Conversion of Carr Lake to a Multi-Use Park

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A watershed-related issue examined by the ENVS 560/L Watershed Systems class at CSUMB.


The Carr Lake Project

Carr Lake, the largest of ten lakes and wetland areas in the lower Salinas Valley, is located in the heart of the City of Salinas. In 1910, James D. Carr drained most of the lake for agricultural use as part of the Reclamation Ditch project. This project aimed at draining lakes to create more agricultural land and to create suitable areas for urban development. The resulting reclamation ditch continues to drain approximately 157 square miles of land into Monterey Bay. Currently there is a movement underway to purchase the agricultural land and convert it to a regional park with recreational areas for the people of Salinas, a wetland area to improve water quality and mitigate flooding during high storm years, and an educational place where people can explore and study nature (Cameron et al 2003)[1].

Issues with the Project

<Need to state issues. Are there any downsides our obstacles to the project?>


Carr Lake is located at the confluence of three tributaries, Gabilan Creek, Alisal Creek and Natividad Creek, and drains into the Reclamation Ditch which empties into the Pacific Ocean. It is also located in the heart of the City of Salinas bounded by Laurel Drive, Sherwood Drive, Natividad Road and Highway 101 and located adjacent to five schools[1]. It is within walking distance of eight schools, which makes it ideal for education and hands on learning.

Resources at stake

  1. Culture and ecology
    1. Cultural and ecological resources will be greatly enriched if Carr Lake Park becomes a reality. Because of its proximity to gang related activity in Salinas, there is a hope that the recreational facilities, community gardens, bird habitat areas and other features of the park could provide a healthier outlet for youthful energy (Anderson 2008). Salinas has a low density of park space per capita, less than a quarter of the amount recommended for healthy communities by the Trust for Public Lands, and adding Carr Lake would nearly double its park space (Anderson 2008). Combined with other adjacent parks, it would be about the size of Golden Gate Park and economic hopes are that it will draw tourists and provide income for Salinas (Watershed 2008). With the proper design, restoring Carr Lake's wetlands could provide habitat for the threatened tiger salamander and red-legged frog as well as for sensitive bird species (Casagrande and Watson 2007). All three tributaries entering Carr Lake have pollution problems associated with runoff from agricultural and urban areas (Casagrande et al 2006). The proposed wetlands could potentially clean up pollutants and diminish the nutrient, sediment and pesticide water quality problems, truly a benefit as this water is destined for the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, home to otters and extensive marine life.
  2. Flood protection
    1. The agricultural land of Carr Lake is commonly flooded, however during El Nino events flooding extends into the adjacent trailer park area. Photos of flooding in 1998 can be viewed at the link (Watershed 2008): [1]
  3. Private land ownership
    1. <What about private land ownership as a resource?>


Carr Lake Project Stakeholders

The Carr Lake Project has banded together an array of government, non-profit and citizen groups to promote its path forward. Its Advisory Council is composed of the following members (Watershed 2008):

Other Stakeholders

  • Existing private landowners
  • Others?

Laws, policies, & regulations

The Clean Water Act of 1972 makes polluting our nation's waters illegal, however regulating non-point source pollution has been slow, difficult and largely ineffective to date. Water quality monitoring of the three incoming tributaries revealed excessive nutrients, pesticides and sediment above TMDL standards (Casagrande et al. 2006). Although federal law does not require agricultural to obtain permits for water discharges, California Water Code now requires requires monitoring of agricultural drainage and requires regional water boards to assess their efforts to stem pollution (Dowd 2008). In 2009 the status of the agricultural waiver program comes up for review and the water board may make changes to existing permits and waivers (Doud 2008).

Currently available bond money from two propositions passed by state voters, Propositions 84 and 1E, may potentially provide the money to purchase the land from current owners, the first step in developing the park. The Big Sur Land Trust has begun negotiating with the three Japanese-American families (Higashi, Hibino and Ikeda) who own the land (Anderson 2008).


The systems involved include the hydrological system which includes the geographical context within which the tributaries, lakes and drainage basin lies. The ecosystem includes fish, mammal, birds, macroinvertebrates, and the botanical resources.


  • Extensive monitoring of water quality of the Carr Lake watershed (the tributaries, drainage ditch and Tembladero Slough) has been conducted by CCoWS (Casagrande et al. 2006).
  • An investigation of the biophysical benefits of creating the park analyzed its value from a hydrological, biological, and water quality perspective (Casagrande and Watson 2007).
  • The Cal Poly student design team assessed the potential social, economic, flood control and educational value that could be gained from the park (Cameron et al. 2003).

Scientific Tools

  • Photography has been used to capture images of flooding events, erosion, fish and other ecological and social problems associated with Carr Lake and its watershed.
  • GIS has been used to project flooding event changes if the proposed flood controls are implemented. GIS was also a design tool for alternative models and proposals of the layout of the park.
  • Added tools that could help make the case for Carr lake would be to model contaminant removal by the proposed wetlands area. As there are different proposals for how much acreage out of the total 480 acre park area to devote to wetlands, modeling concentration removal of known pollutants could help predict the water quality improvements for each proposal and enable better decision making.

Future research

  • Knowledge gaps:
    • NOAA has classified the upper Gabilan area as steelhead habitat, but it is unknown whether there is a steelhead population in this region (Casagrande and Watson 2007). Research to determine the presence (or absence) and extent of such a population would be a help to determining protective measures. The other nine lakes were once wetlands and animal habitat and there may be other areas in the watershed that could be ideal locations for constructed wetlands to improve water quality. A study to determine appropriate locations and efficiencies of wetlands to provide improved water quality to mitigate pollution from agricultural and urban runoff could be helpful for future planning.
  • Potential CWSP MS thesis topic:
    • Possible CWSP thesis topics could be a population study of steelhead trout in Gabilan Creek. A second helpful thesis could be to model restored Carr Lake as a wetland for reducing pollutant concentrations. Another thesis topic could be a watershed approach to locating wetlands to improve water quality from nonpoint source pollution. A third topic could be an analysis of the influence of agricultural best management practices on reducing agricultural pollutants. Methods for managing urban runoff and for reducing or removing pollutants in the City of Salinas could also be a useful topic.
  • Potential study if resources were unlimited:
    • If resources were unlimited, a study of the economics and biophysical benefits of reconstructing all ten lakes for habitat and for wetland areas to control pollution would provide a vision of how to recover and restore the land both in coincidence with its original nature and in ways that would help with water quality problems created by modern ways of life. Research into pollutant cycling and transformation and effects on wildlife would be useful to determine how best to manage a living water treatment system.

Notes and References

  1. 1.0 1.1
  2. Big Sur Newsletter 2015



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