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Endangered Rivers

Sustainable Solutions Exist for the Sacramento-San Joaquin Rivers

Aerial photo of the O'Connor Lakes Unit by the Feather River. Photo by Tom Griggs, PhD., Senior Restoration Ecologist.

The national environmental group American Rivers recently named the Sacramento-San Joaquin River system as the most endangered in the country. While many Californians are not surprised by this pronouncement, our collective search for solutions to an outdated flood control system now has the nation's attention.

Through its "America's Most Endangered Rivers List," American Rivers has called upon Californians and our agencies to consider nonstructural flood protection solutions, such as expanding the floodway by moving levees back to "allow rivers to move."

What did not receive attention are some of the sustainable solutions for our flood protection system that are available now. Successful examples of environmentally friendly, cost effective, highly collaborative, flood control projects exist in the Central Valley. Though they cover a few thousand acres, if implemented more broadly, these projects offer hope for this endangered system that spans more than 800 river miles and hundreds of thousands of acres of floodplain.

Over the last several years, the effectiveness of set-back levees and nonstructural flood management approaches has been tested within the Sacramento-San Joaquin river system. Momentum for these projects grew thanks to funding from the Wildlife Conservation Board, the Central Valley Flood Protection Corridor Program through the Department of Water Resources, the Central Valley Improvement Act through the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, and other bond funded programs through Propositions 84, 50, and 1E, etc.

The results have been the restoration of thousands of acres of floodplains, the creation of multi-benefit projects, and a new synthesis between riparian ecology and engineering.

Dotting the Sacramento-San Joaquin rivers and their tributaries, these on-theground projects not only benefit flood management, but also environmental stewardship. They combine innovative habitat restoration components with set-back levees and floodwater storage projects. They have reduced levee maintenance costs, improved public safety, and added open space to the Central Valley. Many believe these new flood management designs will better protect us from the uncertainties of climate change.

One example is the restoration effort on the Feather River (see Feather River State Wildlife Area – O’Connor Lakes Unit), a tributary to the Sacramento River. A multi-agency Safe Harbor Agreement intended to enhance habitat for endangered and other species allowed elderberry bushes to be planted without any obligation to mitigate for their loss if future maintenance or flood fighting activities destroyed the bushes. In addition to helping the endangered Valley Elderberry Longhorned beetle, the resulting habitat restoration successfully improved flood water conveyance during the 2006 floods.

As another example, the San Joaquin River National Wildlife Refuge has been widely honored for its strides in endangered species recovery, most notable the return of the Aleutian Cackling Goose. It is also home to the largest habitat restoration initiative in California, capable of providing temporary storage of floodwater, thus protecting downstream communities.

These projects evolved through effective collaboration. They have been designed and implemented in partnership with environmental organizations, hydraulic engineers, and multiple agencies – local, state, and federal. These interdisciplinary initiatives could help California avoid old perspectives in addressing flood control for the Sacramento-San Joaquin river system. "Either-Or Thinking" still has a foothold in California. And it leads to simplistic arguments that we have to sacrifice the environment for public safety or we have to sacrifice economic opportunities for endangered species.

River Partners' conservation and flood management examples illuminate the possibility of moving beyond false choices. Located within state wildlife areas, parks, national refuges, and private lands, they indicate that well-designed habitat restoration can bring cost-savings to tax payers and function as a flood management option. Most importantly though, they demonstrate that multi-benefit projects can succeed and offer a sustainable toolkit to solve the looming public safety (i.e. levee) and ecosystem crises that face California.

The above article originally appeared in the Summer 2009 issue of the River Partners Journal.