It’s been a tough six months for the beavers on the Salinas River. While they’ve had relative ease over the past 3 years building upon their dams, the times have changed.
The dam above was built in April 2020. It started out small but after 3 years it eventually measured slightly over 100 feet, creating a diverse, wetland habitat bursting with life.
But then the rains came. The dam survived the first of many atmospheric rivers.
But on January 9th, that final atmospheric river caused all of their dams, lodges, bank dens to wash away in the heavy rains. Entire riparian areas were either buried deep under sand and water, or literally uprooted, turned upside down and moved downstream. Juvenile beavers were separated from their families and ultimately many didn’t survive the separation.
Following that major event, the force of the current had beavers turning up in all sorts of unlikely locations. A few were seen in people’s front yards in Atascadero, one walking along Old Creek Road in Cayucos, lots of trails and beaver sign all along the Salinas River. And while we’ve been monitoring their sign and activity, we’ve been not so patiently waiting for them to rebuild their dams.
And finally, they began to rebuild. The current of the Salinas River had slowed down significantly due to the lower amounts of water flowing in the river. And while we expected to see a new dam in April, then in May, not until June did the beavers begin to rebuild. June!
We noticed this small nub of a beaver dam jutting out from the bank of the river. We were so excited! After scanning the river for months, the beavers were beginning to rebuild their habitat! Finally.
On June 17th and then on June 21st we led tours to this newly started beaver dam. Folks could already see the fish congregating and resting up behind this nub of a beaver dam. While it was very small, the complexity it was adding by slowing the flow, allowing deeper pools to form was very visible to our tour participants.
From that day forward, we would visit every couple of days, watching the dam get closer and closer to the other side of the river. When will they complete it!
On July 1st, my daughter went with her friends to visit this beaver dam. They ended up spending the day there because the dam was finally completed! Yay!! When she came home I was so excited to hear that the dam was finished, I insisted we go back and see it that evening. At 8pm, we finally headed out there.
But I did not get to see a completed dam. Instead I saw ATV tracks, lots of them, straight through the river right up to the dam remains. Chewed beaver sticks intertwined with algae, rocks, smashed frog and dozens of squashed minnows were strewed everywhere.
Such a disappointment. And not just for the beavers.
This isn’t just about the beavers and the animals that depend on them, this is about the future of our water security. The beaver dams are the only thing keeping water in the river year-round; if it wasn’t for those dams there would be nothing to stop the water from rushing to the ocean and sinking underground. Without beaver dams the groundwater level will drop, and that will affect everyone living along the Salinas River that relies on groundwater in their wells
It is time for us to respect the Salinas River as the important natural resource that it is. If treated right, the Salinas River can continually replenish our groundwater and act as a fire buffer and wildlife refuge. Or, we can keep turning a blind eye and continue to allow recreation that damages habitat, decreases our water availability and increases fire risk.
It isn’t legal to destroy beaver dams, it violates CDFW code FGC 1602 Fish and Wildlife Protection and Conservation. It isn’t legal to have ATVs on the De Anza trails , it voilates California Code, Vehicle Code – VEH § 38319
And yet, these ATV riders currently don’t have a local place to drive. Because the riparians areas around the river are littered with fallen trees and impassable after this winter’s floods, the ATV trails that used to parallel the river in places, no longer exist. Now the ATV drivers that insist on driving through the Salinas River bed must drive straight through the river. Driving through the river prohibits any beaver dams from spanning the river. They prohibit ground water being replenished and water being stored. This removes all chance of fish, amphibians, and insect survival which in turn affects the plants, bird life, and mammals in the area. Driving through the river reduces life. Instead we get a hot, dry riverbed prone to fire.
As we watched the water rush by, we imagined what could be happening here instead. The water could be slowed down, held back. The ponds could be expanding, creating more riparian area around the river, providing shade and cooling the water, supporting the fish and tiny toads that are all over the place right now. The water could be seeping into our ground water, keeping our water supply stable. The water could be getting filtered through the dams, getting cleaner after every dam. The beavers could be building a second of many dams, creating a dense series of cascading dams, or speed bumps, slowing down the force of future potential floods. The river could be expanding, providing a badly needed firebreak should a wildfire break out this season (or should I say when?).
But instead, the beavers get to rebuild their one dam, over and over again. Here it is.