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Salinas River (California)

Salinas River
Rio del Monterey[1][2], Rio San Antonio[1], Rio San Elizario[3], Rio Santa Delfina[4]
View of the Salinas River near San Ardo. The San Ardo Oil Field is visible in the distance.
Country United States
State California
 - left Nacimiento River, San Antonio River, Arroyo Seco
 - right Estrella River, San Lorenzo Creek
Cities Paso Robles, Soledad, Salinas
Source Garcia Mountain in the Los Padres National Forest
 - location San Luis Obispo County, California
 - elevation 2,400 ft (732 m)
 - coordinates  [3]
Mouth Monterey Bay
 - location 3 miles north of Marina, California
 - elevation 0 ft (0 m)
 - coordinates  [3]
Length 175 mi (282 km) [5]
Basin 4,160 sq mi (10,774 km2)
Discharge for near Spreckels
 - average 421 cu ft/s (12 m3/s)
 - max 95,000 cu ft/s (2,690 m3/s)
 - min 0 cu ft/s (0 m3/s)
Map of the Salinas River watershed

The Salinas River is the largest river of the central coast of California, running 170 miles (270 km) and draining 4,160 square miles.[6] It flows north-northwest and drains the Salinas Valley that slices through the central California Coast Ranges south of Monterey Bay.[3] The Salinas River is a wildlife corridor, and provides the principal source of water from its reservoirs and tributaries for the farms and vineyards of the valley.


  • Toponymy 1
  • Description 2
  • Ecology 3
  • Agricultural use 4
  • See also 5
  • References 6
  • External links 7


The origin of the name for the river is somewhat ambiguous. It did not, however, receive its name during the Spanish or the Mexican eras. It was first encountered by the Spanish Portola Expedition on September 27, 1769, and so was named for the saint celebrated on that day, San Elizario.[4] However, it subsequently appeared on many maps as the Rio de Monterey and its valley was called the Valle de Monterey. It was called Rio de Monterey by Fr. Pedro Font on March 4, 1776 and the Monterey River as late as 1850.[1] It first appears on an American map in 1858 as the Rio Salinas, perhaps because of the large salt flats noted near its mouth in that era.[7]


The river starts in central San Luis Obispo County, at the north end of the La Panza Range, approximately 20 miles (32 km) east of San Luis Obispo. Its only dam forms the small Santa Margarita Lake. The Salinas flows parallel to the Santa Lucia Mountain Range past Atascadero and Paso Robles (to Monterey). It receives outflow from the Estrella River and the Nacimiento and San Antonio lakes through their river tributaries in southern Monterey County.

The river passes through the active San Ardo Oil Field, and then into and through the Salinas Valley, between the Santa Lucia and Gabilan Ranges. It flows past many small towns in the valley, including: King City, Greenfield, and Soledad, where it combines with the flash-flood prone Arroyo Seco.

It flows just south of the city of Salinas before cutting through Fort Ord and approaching the south-central edge of Monterey Bay south of Castroville. The river forms a lagoon protected by the 367 acre Salinas River National Wildlife Refuge and its outflow to Monterey Bay is blocked by sand dunes except during winter high-water flows.

Historical course

The land owners altered the course of the river by filling in the river bed during the dry season. This allowed them to farm all of their land and use the water as they saw fit. The old stream bed went from the Old Salinas River, joining Elkhorn Slough on Monterey Bay near Moss Landing, to the present course where the main channel's mouth is directly on the Pacific Ocean. The Old Salinas River channel that diverts north behind the sand dunes along the ocean, is used as an overflow channel during the rainy season.


The Arroyo Seco is the only major Salinas River tributary which remains un-dammed and supporting one of the most persistent remnants of the threatened Central Coast Steelhead trout (Oncorhynchus mykiss) that spawn in the Salinas River watershed. It is also an important middle link for salmon migrating from the Salinas River to Tassajara Creek and other tributaries.[8] A 2001 assessment of steelhead habitat of the Arroyo Seco and its Piney Creek tributary found high potential for steelhead population restoration.[9] Estrella River also remains un-dammed.

Other tributaries of the Salinas River that support steelhead include Paso Robles Creek, Jack Creek, Atascadero Creek, Santa Margarita Creek and Trout Creek in the upper reaches of the River. It can take over ten days for the steelhead from the upper part of the watershed to migrate to the Pacific Ocean near the City of Marina on Monterey Bay. From there, the steelhead migrate to the area west of the Aleutian Islands before returning to the spawning grounds in the tributaries of the Salinas River.[6]

Father Pedro Font described salmon in the Salinas River (Rio de Monterey) on the de Anza Expedition in March, 1776:"...there are obtained also many good salmon which enter the river to spawn. Since they are fond of fresh water they ascend the streams so far that I am assured that even at the mission of San Antonio some of the fish which ascend the Rio de Monterey have been caught. Of this fish we ate almost every day while we were here."[10] This meant that salmon would traverse the Salinas River and up the San Antonio River to end up near Mission San Antonio.

After depletion by 19th century fur trappers, California golden beaver (Castor canadensis subauratus) have expanded their range from the Salinas River mouth at least to its San Antonio River tributary below the reservoir.[11][12]

The upper Salinas River and its tributaries used to host large runs of steelhead trout and Chinook salmon. However the salmon were extirpated by 1915, largely by dams which prevented fish passage to spawning runs, and the steelhead are reduced to mere remnant populations.[6]

Agricultural use

The use of the river for irrigation in the Salinas Valley makes it one of the most productive agricultural regions in California. It is especially known as one of the principal regions for lettuce and artichokes in the United States. The river is shallow above ground, periodically dry, with much of its flow underground. The underground flow results from numerous aquifers, which are recharged by water from the Salinas, especially from the Nacimiento and San Antonio lakes during the dry months. In the 18th and early 19th centuries, the river valley provided the route of El Camino Real, the principal overland route from southern to northern Alta California, used by Spanish explorers and missionaries and early Mexican settlers.

See also


  1. ^ a b c Erwin G. Gudde, William Bright (2004). California Place Names: The Origin and Etymology of Current Geographical Names. University of California Press. p. 246.  
  2. ^ Hoover, Mildred B.; et al. (1966). Historic Spots in California. 3rd edition. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press. p. 219. 
  3. ^ a b c d U.S. Geological Survey Geographic Names Information System: Salinas River
  4. ^ a b Bancroft, Hubert H. (1884–1890). History of California. 7 vols. San Francisco, California: A.L. Bancroft and Company. p. v1/p150. Retrieved 2010-12-15. 
  5. ^ Measured in Google Earth using the path measure tool
  6. ^ a b c Donald J. Funk, Adriana Morales (2002-03). Upper Salinas River and Tributaries Watershed Fisheries Report and Early Actions (PDF) (Report). Upper Salinas Tablas Resource Conservation District. Retrieved 2010-12-15. 
  7. ^ David L. Durham (1998). California's geographic names: a gazetteer of historic and modern names of the state. Quill Driver Books. p. 1676. Retrieved 2010-12-15. 
  8. ^ "Ventana Wild Rivers Campaign: Arroyo Seco River, Tassajara Creek & Church Creek". Ventana Wilderness Alliance's Wild Rivers Campaign. Retrieved 2010-12-15. 
  9. ^ Brian Londquist (2001-04-20). Steelhead (Oncorhynchus mykiss) Habitat Assessment Along the Arroyo Seco River, Undergraduate Thesis (PDF) (Thesis). California State University, Monterey Bay. p. 32. Retrieved 2010-12-15. 
  10. ^ Pedro Font. Expanded Diary of Pedro Font. Retrieved 2011-01-30. 
  11. ^ Barry Parr (2007). Explore! Big Sur Country A Guide to Exploring the Coastline, Byways, Mountains, Trails, and Lore. Globe Pequot. p. 174.  
  12. ^ "Salinas River National Wildlife Refuge". U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Retrieved 2010-12-16. 

External links

  • Upper Salinas-Las Tablas Resource Conservation District
  • Reference Information for the Salinas River
  • County Of Monterey - county homepage
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