Regs Keep Calif. Campground Closed
A Mallard duck hopped off the picnic table in the flooded McGrath State Beach campground Thursday (March 21). The picnic table and others floating nearby were some of the only clues of the 171 campsites hidden under several feet of water.
This time of year, the popular beachside campground normally would be taking reservations and getting ready to open. Water from the Santa Clara River and elsewhere that spills into the area during winter months would be nearly gone, having drained into the ocean, the Ventura County Star reported.
But that didn’t happen this year, delaying the opening indefinitely.
“All the campsites are inundated with water,” said Richard Rozzelle, district superintendent with California State Parks. “If it drained out today, it would take at least a month before we could open.”
But the water trapped at the Oxnard site isn’t expected to go away this week or anytime soon. Where the Santa Clara River usually drains into the ocean, a sandy berm blocks its path.
Most years, a deluge of rainwater would come down the river and break through the sand, forging a route to the sea.
“We haven’t had enough rain at any one time to get any significant runoff,” said Scott Holder, a hydrologist with the Ventura County Watershed Protection District.
And this late in the year, the county may not get a rainstorm big enough to break through, potentially leaving the campground closed the entire season.
That leaves Rozzelle in a quandary. State park officials cannot breach the berm themselves. The area, home to threatened and endangered species, is protected habitat, and the agency’s mission includes protecting natural resources, he said.
Rozzelle blames water pumped into the estuary from the city of Ventura sewage plant for much of the problem. The city has a permit to discharge treated wastewater into the Santa Clara River estuary and has for decades.
It’s unclear if enough water from other sources would have flooded the campsites anyway. Rozelle thinks they would be dry by now without the city’s wastewater. He suggested the city turn off its tap and see what happens.
Shana Epstein, general manager of the city’s water department, said her office will investigate those concerns.
Ventura is in the process of renewing its permit with the Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board. Comments regarding the permit, including from state park officials, recently were forwarded to the board along with a city report. It’s likely the board will ask for more studies to be done, Epstein said.
Rozzelle plans to stay involved in the permitting process. Whatever happens with the permit, the city doesn’t have permission to discharge onto state park property, and officials are looking at options to stop it, he said.
Meanwhile, parks officials are continuing to monitor water levels, which fluctuate day to day.
While closed, the campground loses revenue. Open year-round, it could bring in as much as $650,000, Rozzelle said.
But the biggest impact is to campers, he said. There’s a high demand for coastal camping in Southern California.
Just two years ago, the community rallied around McGrath when it was among dozens of state parks slated to close partly because of budget cuts. A fundraising campaign raised enough to replace a deteriorating sewer line and prevent the closure.
After construction, it reopened last June.
“We spruced it up and saved it last year,” said county Supervisor John Zaragoza, one of the big proponents for keeping the park open.
He believes the berm will break on its own but said officials also plan to look at whether the campsites can be moved to higher ground as a long-term fix.
On Thursday, the campground looked more like a water park for ducks and pelicans than a respite for campers. Ducks swam in bunches, and a great egret stood leg-deep in water next to a snowy egret.
Nearby, industrial-sized trash bins floated next to a grassy bank, and the tips of metal fire pits barely crested the waterline.
“Our department wants this park to have a future. We’re planning for its future,” Rozzelle said. “We need to find a way to accomplish that.”