Guest View: Watershed thinking and Measure Q

I have been thinking a lot lately about measure Q and the importance of slowing growth, protecting both open space and the environment as well as preserving agriculture in our region. I have had the incredible opportunity, over my lifetime, to spend a considerable amount of time in the Sierra Nevada range. I think there are some very interesting lessons to be learned from the high Sierra. These lessons will hopefully help to inform our decision as we consider Measure Q.

The first Sierra lesson is one of passion, perseverance, political strategy and foresight. As you all know, John Muir fought hard and long to protect, in perpetuity, a huge swath of the Sierra Nevada range. It was an uphill battle but one that stands out in the conservation movement as a major accomplishment in the preservation of a magnificent mountain range. 

For millions of Americans, access to wild and scenic areas is critical for recreation, relaxation, general well-being, and simply getting away from the rigors and frustrations of our daily existence. John Muir understood this well, and through his writing did a very good job of convincing political leaders, and the general public, of the importance of the preservation of that stunning range of mountains. 

Having resided here in San Benito County for almost 12 years, I have come to realize we have a real gem here—in many ways as stunning as the high Sierra. It was the rural character and natural beauty that attracted me. We have very scenic and remote places—and a beautiful National Park—but we also have the necessary resources (water, soil, climate) that allow our county to be a very productive agricultural region. 

Food production is basic and real, and the people lucky enough to work in agriculture have rich and rewarding livelihoods. This basic truth pervades our community and the pride is palpable. Though difficult to put into words, this “pride of food production” is a huge addition to the richness and charm of this region we all call home.

Having spent my entire career in agriculture here in California, I have developed a keen sense of appreciation for the spectacular aesthetic that open space and working lands provide us. 

Those long views across our broad valleys to the coastal ranges off in the distance are jaw dropping. 

So, getting back to the Sierra and lesson number two. I have been on numerous adventures this summer into beautiful and remote places in the Sierra range. This was an exceptionally low snowfall year and many of the creeks that typically run throughout the month of August had ceased to flow by late July. 

The Sierra Nevada experienced a somewhat unusual monsoonal flow in early August that provided much needed moisture to an unusually dry landscape. The high meadows and lakes held the excessive moisture flow and released that moisture slowly over the ensuing weeks to maintain a renewed and steady flow to the creeks and drainages that had dried up prior to those early August rains. The watershed was doing its job! 

If you looked carefully you could see, clearly, in the upper watersheds, in the thick meadows that dot the landscape, that the rain moisture was being very effectively held back, then filtered and cleansed, before being released slowly and uniformly to the lower portions of the watershed. 

Now you might be wondering what this all has to do with San Benito County. The Pajaro River watershed is our primary watershed here in San Benito County. Once the flood-prone Pajaro leaves San Benito County it then goes on through the Pajaro Valley and out into the Pacific Ocean. When the river hits the San Andreas fault, during high winter flow, a large percentage of that flow goes directly into the giant aquifer that is the main water source for the Pajaro Valley—one of the most highly productive agricultural regions in our state.

What is important to understand is that the areas in San Benito county slated for potential commercial and residential development, as specified in the current San Benito County General Plan, are currently functioning like those high meadows in the Sierra. If left alone as “working” ag lands these areas can continue to provide this critical function of maintaining a steady and clean flow to the Pajaro and associated aquifers. Once paved over, the watershed will be negatively impacted forever. 

My fear is that once the development starts, it will be very hard to stop. All we have to do is look to our north to see what could happen here within the next few generations if we don’t take action now. Development is highly detrimental to agriculture. 

The value of this natural watershed service, as described above, along with the value of open space, working lands and a local and sustainable food production capability, will far out-value the short-term wealth that will be gained from the developments themselves. We need to protect our region from the short-term thinking inherent in the types of developments being considered for this unique region we are so lucky to call home. 

We need to think long-term and make solid decisions about the future of our region. Our children and grandchildren will be proud and thankful of our foresight in standing up to development pressures and promoting a strong and viable agricultural system. If we can save what we currently have—open space and working lands—we will be able to provide countless opportunities for watershed education, exploration and rejuvenation.

Please vote yes on measure Q. 

Jim Leap has over 45 years of hands-on experience in diverse vegetable production systems, including 21 years as manager of the CASFS farm (UC Santa Cruz). Throughout his career, he has been actively involved in teaching, advising and mentoring beginning and experienced farmers.