by Peter Fimrite from "San Francisco Chronicle" [http://www.sfgate.com/default/article/San-Joaquin-Valley-floodplain-coaxed-back-4194095.php]:
Vernalis, San Joaquin County --
here isn't much that looks revolutionary at Dos Rios Ranch, a low-lying, 1,603-acre stretch of land at the confluence of the Tuolumne and San Joaquin rivers where corn, wheat and almonds grow.
The flood-prone property near Modesto is nevertheless at the heart of an innovative movement combining flood management with ecosystem restoration that could change the face of the entire river corridor in the San Joaquin Valley.
The ranch was purchased in April by the group River Partners, using $21.8 million in federal, state and local grant money. The plan is to transform the farmland, beginning this month, into a riparian floodplain, said John Carlon, president of the nonprofit, which has partnered with government agencies on restoration projects for 15 years.
"A really major component of this project is flood control," said Carlon, who expects the project to take 10 years to complete. "If all these low areas near the river were acquired, theoretically you could store more water in the reservoirs because you could spill more out all at once without hurting the neighbors. It is a different way of looking at water supply management."
$10 million project -
The project, which is expected to cost $10 million, is the largest, most sophisticated effort yet to restore the ancient wetlands once used by migrating fish as well as hundreds of thousands of birds along the Pacific Flyway, one of the largest migratory bird paths in the world. The restoration will be funded using federal and state grants, local fines for sewage leaks and pollution violations, and donations.
The effort is one of several projects along the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers to restore a natural system that humans altered. Some 95 percent of the historic floodplains in the Central Valley were filled in or blocked by levees after the Gold Rush.
Restoring Dos Rios Ranch will involve the reintroduction of hundreds of native plants and trees, using a sophisticated computer model to maximize distribution of species and native wildlife habitat.
The work is a model for California's first-ever attempt to create a systemwide flood management plan for the state's major reservoirs. The $4.9 billion FloodSafe initiative, which was created by the Central Valley Flood Protection Act in 2006, is an attempt to increase public safety, promote long-term economic stability and improve environmental stewardship in the areas that have historically flooded during winter rains.
Controlled flooding -
The plan is to allow floodwater to breach the levees around Dos Rios during rainy winters and inundate the land, creating a mini-reservoir during peak flows. The flooding, combined with native plant restoration, will create the kind of marshland habitat favored by birds. It may also help avoid disasters like the one in 1997, when both the Tuolumne and San Joaquin rivers flooded, inundating much of the valley for weeks.
"These are the kinds of projects we are hoping there will be more of in the future," said Tim Ramirez, one of seven members of the Central Valley Flood Protection Board, who are appointed by the governor. "If you can create more space for the rivers in the winter, it creates a little more room for things downstream. We have to have more space. Floodplain restoration has to be part of the mix."
The Central Valley was once a vast Serengeti-like bowl, with grizzly bears, elk, and a huge diversity of birds and wildlife along the rivers. Fisheries biologists believe that the loss of these vast floodplains is one reason California's once-ample population of chinook salmon has declined. Migrating juvenile salmon historically rested and fattened up in flooded marshlands during the winter before heading out to the ocean. The confluence of the San Joaquin and the Tuolumne was a prime spot for those fish.
Crucial marshlands -
Carlon said the new marshlands will be crucial as experts restore chinook farther upstream in the San Joaquin, where a long section dried up after Friant Dam was built in 1942.
The restoration work falls in line with an effort by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to restore at least 26 miles of riverfront along the San Joaquin leading to the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, said Kim Forrest, the manager of the San Luis National Wildlife Refuge Complex.
"It's basically a migrating bird freeway, but it is disjointed and broken now," said Forrest, who is working closely with River Partners. "We want to restore that freeway."
Forrest is the caretaker of a living example of the kind of thing that is possible. Three Amigos Ranch is 3,200 acres of former farmland purchased by the federal government in 1998 directly across the San Joaquin River from Dos Rios.
The crops have been replaced by 14 different species of plants, willow trees and shrubs, laid out in a grid pattern containing 227 different species per acre. The planting is done by schoolchildren, the California Conservation Corps and local farmworkers, and the land is carefully watered and cultivated.
Expanded refuge -
The farm - now a natural landscape dotted with forest, wetlands and meadow - expanded the San Joaquin River National Wildlife Refuge, part of the San Luis complex. It is home to coyotes, beavers, river otters, weasels and the Riparian brush rabbit, which has been on the U.S. Endangered Species list since 2000.
Flocks of Aleutian cackling geese flew over fields covered with tall Sandhill cranes standing shoulder to shoulder during a recent tour of the property led by Forrest and Carlon. The group passed a former tomato field that is now a wetland pond surrounded by tules and squawking birds. Doves covered a nearby tree and a hawk lurked nearby.
The land floods frequently in heavy winter rains. Dos Rios will eventually connect to - and, if everything works out, be part of - this lush wildlife refuge, which officials hope will eventually reach 12,000 acres, storing some 30,000 acre-feet of floodwater.
"We are trying to re-create a habitat that can withstand all of the interference that people bring," Carlon said. "It's a system that will all be driven by the river."
Delia Flores with the California Conservation Corps helps 227 different plant species per acre take root. Photo: Michael Macor, The Chronicle
Left: Sandhill cranes take wing over the Dos Rios Ranch property. Photo: Michael Macor, The Chronicle
Kim Forrest, San Joaquin River National Wildlife Refuge manager, hopes to see the "migrating bird freeway" restored. Photo: Michael Macor, The Chronicle