Droughts cause floods at beloved McGrath State Beach

By Tim Pompey

There’s good news and bad news for McGrath State Beach, that popular vacation alcove tucked along the Oxnard coast.


The berm that stretched across the Santa Clara River was nearly a mile in length, about 25 feet wide, and anywhere from 7-10 feet high. Photo courtesy of Josh Pace

First, the good news. The berm in the Santa Clara River that has caused extensive flooding at the campsites for nearly eighteen months has finally broken. On Monday, February 10, the water rose to extremely high levels in the estuary at the river’s mouth. High tides also pounded the long thin sand berm on the park’s  long  ocean frontage. Sometime late Monday night or early Tuesday, whatever held this stubborn berm together, finally caved. By Tuesday midday, the mouth of the river had lowered to its seasonal level.

Ironically, droughts are an indirect cause of the flooding. In rainier years, the heavy flow of the river usually overflows the berm early, breaking through it, which keeps the water level in the estuary much lower. In dryer years, this doesn’t happen as frequently, allowing water behind the berm to accumulate and flood the park.

The Santa Clara River flooding at its peak covered all the campsites under a steady lake of water. Ventura Harbor is visible at upper left. Photo courtesy of Josh Pace.

The Santa Clara River flooding at its peak covered all the campsites under a steady lake of water. Ventura Harbor is visible at upper left. Photo courtesy of Josh Pace.

Now for the bad news. The campsites themselves have been severely damaged. “70 to 80 percent of the campgrounds are under muck,” said McGrath_03McGrath_03Melissa Elam Baffa, executive director of Friends of Channel Coast State Parks, a nonprofit organization specializing in support, education and recreational opportunities for central coast campers. “Of the 174 available campsites, there are maybe 10 usable sites left.”

It’s a severe blow for those in the area who consider McGrath a local environmental and camping jewel. Home to endangered species such as the tidewater goby, the steelhead trout, the California tern, and the western snowy plover, it is also a highly valued family vacation destination by its many fans in Ventura, Los Angeles, and Orange County.


Since the break of the berm, most of the road and campgrounds are covered in a thick layer of mud. Photo courtesy of Josh Pace.

The state park also provides important revenue for small businesses in both Ventura and Oxnard. “Our coastline is very important,” said Carmen Ramirez, a member of the Oxnard City Council, “not just for environmental protection and recreation purposes, but for our economy.”

5th District County Supervisor John Zaragoza, a lifelong resident of Oxnard, agrees:  “It’s an economic asset. It’s a good place for families to vacation. Families buy food supplies and gas. The Ventura harbor is close, as well as dining and shopping at the Seabridge in Oxnard. People come to McGrath, spend money, and have a great time.”

waste water pond

Ventura wastewater treatment plant is a next door neighbor (upper left). Oil wells and Mandalay power plant are to the South, without significant ill effects.

While one immediate crisis has passed, the future of McGrath as a campsite remains up in the air. Its close proximity to the river and its surrounding estuary means the park is always at risk. “Flooding in McGrath has been an ongoing problem since the 1990s,” said Richard Rozzelle, state park superintendent for the Channel Coast District.

In addition to its perilous location, Rozzelle notes another problem. One of the park’s key neighbors, the city of Ventura, is discharging several million gallons of treated water into the Santa Clara estuary on a daily basis. (Ed. note: outflow said to be very clean, wildlife looks healthy).

Rozzelle feels that it’s a major factor in coming to terms with the repair of the park as well as a finding a long-term solution. “We think that the city is responsible for the impact to the campground,” he said, “and we think the city is responsible for the long-term plan to relocate the campsites.”

The most obvious solution for saving McGrath would be to relocate the park further south away from the normal reach of the river’s flood zone, but this would require significant cooperation among government agencies.

Nor is it a simple matter to breach the berm itself. This part of the coast is a highly sensitive area under state and federal protection. “It’s something that society has created, the rules to managing our endangered species,” he noted. “It makes decisions to breach the berm very complex. There are a lot of wrinkles to it. It’s not easy.”

The size of the berm itself also presents a physical challenge. Running about a mile or so along the coast, it forms the southeast end of the lagoon at the mouth of the river. The thick sand is about twenty-five feet wide and anywhere from seven to ten feet high. Since it serves as a natural barrier, deciding where and how to breach the berm is a formidable decision, particularly in light of the abundant and environmentally protected bird life that calls this wide barrier home.

Photo Gallery:

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As for deciding the future of McGrath, Rozzelle lists some of the current partners involved in the decision-making process. Diverse and formidable in their scope, they include California State Parks, California Fish and Wildlife, U.S. Fish and Wildlife, National Marine Fisheries, the Regional Water Control Board, the Ventura County Watershed Protection District, and the city of Ventura.

Baffa acknowledges that garnering inter-agency cooperation among all these partners to help save McGrath is difficult. “McGrath is wrapped up in red tape,” she explained, “because you’ve got so many agencies involved in finding a solution.”

Beyond government cooperation, there’s also the thorny issue of securing funding for the cleanup and any proposed relocation. The crucial question is: What monies are currently available for this particular project? The answer seems to be, at least from the perspective of current city and government agencies — none. With no money and no plan as of yet to fix the park, it leaves the future of McGrath, at least as a campsite, in doubt.

One thing that’s not in doubt, however, is the desire of local citizens and government representatives to restore access to the park. Ramirez calls McGrath, “a historical recreational site that we are privileged to have under the city and the city’s stewardship.”

Baffa realizes that having kids and families camp there builds crucial support for the park itself. “I want to see the park and the wildlife protected, but I want to see camping in there as well,” she said, “because people are becoming increasingly disconnected from nature. So, whether it’s little kids who are our next generation of voters or our current voters who can advocate for our parks or low income families looking for a recreational opportunity they can afford, it’s important to keep McGrath open.”

As long as the draw of McGrath continues, there seems to be a push from the community to rescue it. Last summer, in a last ditch effort to save some of the camping season, a group of civic minded individuals and government agencies stepped in with fundraising efforts to help clean up and reopen the park.

As a result, the Ventura County Watershed Protection District installed a pump on the berm to lower the water level. With guidance from a state park biologist and a private monitoring firm, the county ran inflow from the berm side and outflow on the ocean side.

As a short-term fix, it worked. The water level was lowered enough to allow for some limited campsite openings in September and October. But when funds to operate the pump ran out in October, the river water took back its territory.

Given this limited success, Rozzelle and Zaragoza think there might be more opportunities in the future to use this option and perhaps to shave the berm itself to allow for better water flow between the river and the ocean.

But Baffa believes the real moving and shaking has to come from the state legislature. “It’s going to take movement at the state level,” she said, “whether from special funding or other funding sources. This is not something that is going to be solved locally.”

Until that funding arrives, McGrath will continue to be a great location for local birds that have come in abundance to feast in the park. As for camping and recreation, swamped as McGrath is under lagoons and mud, dotted with dead trees, clogged with impassable roads, it might be a while before large numbers of campers can once more enjoy its pristine glory.



Park Sevice verbiage: McGrath State Beach is one of the best bird-watching areas in California, with the lush riverbanks of the Santa Clara River and sand dunes along the shore. A nature trail leads to the Santa Clara Estuary Natural Preserve. Two miles of beach provide surfing and fishing opportunities, however, swimmers are urged to use caution because of strong currents and riptides. The park offers campsites by the beach.

The beach is five miles south of Ventura off Highway 101 via Harbor Boulevard.



perilousPaintingsTim Pompey, a freelance writer who has done lots of local affairs and entertainment/cultural writing, lives in Oxnard. Tim is also a fiction writer (Facebook Page). See chapter from his upcoming new book  “The Perilous Paintings of Lily Day.”  3-2-14: Book now out on KINDLE.

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Greg Muller

Good, informative, beautifully illustrated article, except that it suffers from acute political correctness. 20 minutes work by a reasonably skilled bulldozer operator (I could do it with a little brushing up on rusty skills) and flooding problem, costly damage, park unavailable for use by hardworking taxpayers- ALL GONE. No more suffering of “endangered species” than in a normal year. These self-righteous people are in terminal gridlock due to bureaucracy and “Sustainability” religious delusions.