Ten Years on the San Joaquin River National Wildlife Refuge
By Irv Schiffman
This year River Partners celebrates its tenth anniversary carrying out riparian restoration activities on the San Joaquin River National Wildlife Refuge. We are celebrating a relationship that has brought vegetative diversity to flood-prone farmland, that has established and improved needed habitat for a broad array of wildlife, that has helped to restore the essential purpose of a river floodplain, and that has added resources to the local economy.
We began work on the Refuge in 2002, converting 850 acres of flood-prone agricultural land to their original condition as a seasonal floodplain. During these past ten years we restored 2,700 acres through the planting of some 600,000 trees and bushes along with a variety of native grasses. The diversity of habitat has brought back all kinds of wildlife including an increase in the avian community, particularly the recovery of the Yellow Warbler and the return of the Least Bell’s Vireo. In addition, our now famous bunny mounds have helped protect the riparian brush rabbit population along with other terrestrial species threatened by Refuge flooding.
Our work on the Refuge is also designed to minimize flooding impacts. Toward this end, we are working with the Fish and Wildlife Service to breach levees within the Refuge in order to restore flood flows and natural fluvial processes across the floodplain and relieve pressure on downstream levees during times of high flows.
Riparian restoration is a complex conservation activity that is relatively new in its implementation. Accordingly, River Partners has sought to widen interest and learning in the field by including many young people in our Refuge projects. Over twenty student interns have gained restoration experience working summers on the Refuge alongside River Partners employees. In February and March of this year two crews of young adults--ages 18 to 25-- from the California Conservation Corps and the San Joaquin Regional Conservation Corps worked on plantings on a 550-acre site on the Refuge. In March, in partnership with the Tuolumne River Trust, we hosted five service learning days with local elementary schools which resulted in 300 4th graders planting trees on the Refuge.
The local economy has also benefitted from our work on the Refuge, particularly through field labor, equipment rental and administration. River Partners is the largest riparian-focused restoration organization in the San Joaquin Valley: the grants and contracts for restoration work on the Refuge received from ten different partners total almost fourteen million dollars. We fully expect our work on the Refuge and in the region to increase, in part due to our association with the San Joaquin River Restoration Program (SJRRP).
The SJRRP was established to restore and maintain fish populations on the San Joaquin River. River Partners serves on several of its technical working groups. The goals of the Program also include minimizing adverse impacts to water users, levee relocation, and "the establishment of appropriate riparian habitat." We anticipate that River Partners will have much to contribute to these endeavors and further expect that a good part of the effort will take place along the 8.8 miles of levees located within the San Joaquin National Wildlife Refuge.
The above article originally appeared in the December 2012 issue of the River Partners Journal.