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Water: Estuaries and Coastal Watersheds

Morro Bay (NEP Profile)


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Summary Information

Year Established: 1995
Location: California
Area of Watershed: 242 square kilometers

Priority Management Issues:
pathogens (bacterial contamination)
contaminated seafood
habitat loss/alteration
fisheries loss/decline
freshwater inflow

Major Habitat Types:
submerged aquatic vegetation (sea grass, kelp, and green algae)
open water geologic formations
barrier islands/sand bars
lagoon/shallow open water
shellfish growing areas
beach/dune (bare and vegetated)
sand/mud/salt flats
salt/brackish marsh
freshwater marsh (tidal and non-tidal)
freshwater lakes/ponds
grass/open field
non-wetland forest
riparian/riverine (forested, tidal, and floodplain)
abandonded agricultural

Federally Endangered or Threatened Species:
Morro Bay kangaroo rat
southern sea otter
brown pelican
marbeled murrelet
peregrine falcon
western snowy plover
California red legged frog
steelhead trout
tidewater goby
banded dune snail (Morro shoulderband snail)
California sea-blite
Chorro Creek bog thistle
Indian Knob mountain balm
Morro manzanita
salt marsh bird's beak

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Overviews and Highlights

The Morro Bay Estuary joined the National Estuary Program in July 1995. It contains the most significant wetland system on California's south central coast. It serves a critical environmental function of the Pacific coast and serves international interests, in that it supports many species of migratory birds protected by international treaties and provides a protected harbor of off-shore marine fisheries.

There are many known and potential threats to this nationally significant estuary. Sediment threatens to shorten the life of this open water resource by as much as ten-fold. Other water quality concerns include excessive levels of bacteria, nutrients, and heavy metals. Water diversion, urban and agricultural runoff, and increasing impervious surfaces threaten the long-term health of the Bay. Recent wildfires in the upper watershed point to the need for appropriate long term fire management strategies by the U.S. Forest Service and the California Department of Forestry.

The Morro Bay NEP (MBNEP) has formed three issue groups to focus on the priority problems of urban discharges, riparian habitat restoration and enhancement, and soil erosion. One element of common ground that has emerged from initial meetings of these three issue groups is the need to respect individual property rights and to involve landowners in all phases of the process. MBNEP recognizes that the successful development and implementation of a management plan means the resulting action plans must be workable for everyone involved. For example, the Soil Erosion Group is looking at providing incentives for landowners to participate in programs aimed at reducing erosion and maintaining topsoil. Another possible approach is to streamline or otherwise change the permit process so erosion control programs can be more easily implemented.

A Research Needs Workshop was held which documented a wide range of issues in the bay and watershed that require further investigation. Technical studies that address the issues identified by the planning and monitoring processes are underway. A volunteer monitoring program has been developed to gather additional water quality and habitat information and to increase public awareness.

In addition to its status as a National Estuary, Morro Bay has also been designated a State estuary. The draft State Management Plan has recently been released. This plan will provide the framework for the Comprehensive Conservation and Management Plan, which is currently being prepared. Preliminary Drafts of CCMP sections are anticipated within a few months. A structural reorganization has recently taken place, and committees are forming to review the State Plan and provide input on CCMP Sections.

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