15 Years of Restoration in the Sacramento Valley
By Helen Swagerty, Senior Restoration Biologist
River Partners staff monitoring native grass understory at the Sacramento River National Wildlife Refuge Ord Bend Unit in 2006.
Like the dynamic rivers and floodplains on which River Partners carries out its restoration activities, our organization and work in the Sacramento Valley have evolved over the past fifteen years. The initial vision was to reverse the trend of habitat destruction by planting native riparian plant species and restoring wildlife populations that depend on the vegetation of the wildlife corridors along the large rivers of the Central Valley. Our business model has changed over time with habitat restoration remaining as our core mission and driving force, but it has been expanded to land acquisitions, community planning and educating policy-makers.
In our first restoration project, River Partners collaborated with the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) to restore 100 acres on the Sacramento River National Wildlife Refuge Ord Bend Unit. It served as an experimental restoration project designed to yield high quality wildlife habitat on a large scale. The design approach utilized was simple: plant 10 species of natives and arrange them in varying patterns to develop a vegetation structure that would attract targeted wildlife species, such as the federally threatened valley elderberry longhorn beetle (Desmocerus californicus diamorphus) and neo-tropical migratory birds. In 2003, River Partners surveyed elderberry shrubs at this unit and noted that the elusive valley elderberry longhorn beetle (VELB) had colonized the site.
Although native grasses support a wide variety of wildlife species and provide important ecological benefits, they were often excluded as part of riparian restoration projects or implemented on a small scale. The Ord Bend Unit provided an opportunity to demonstrate that 50 acres of native grasses could be successfully incorporated amongst woody riparian species and allowed us to test several planting strategies to compare the relative success of each approach. It also enabled us to refine our process and document how a grass mix sorts itself out by soil type. To date, River Partners has established approximately 2,000 acres of native grasses in the Sacramento Valley.
In 2002, River Partners acquired a 259-acre property along the Sacramento River at the urging of our co-founder Barney Flynn. The parcel, which was named the Del Rio Wildland Preserve, marked River Partners’ first large acquisition solely for riparian restoration with the intention to donate it to a state or federal partner for conservation and public access. Barney firmly believed such land and access to the river belonged to the people of California. The site has hosted many community events and served as an outdoor laboratory for local students from Butte and Glenn Counties. After his passing in 2010, we renamed the Del Rio Wildland Preserve the Bernard F. Flynn, Jr. Wildland Preserve in his memory.
A core value of River Partners, beyond carrying out restoration projects that provide high quality wildlife habitat, is to ensure that the planned project also serves the needs of the local community. The Llaneo Seco Riparian Sanctuary Unit project exemplifies this core value in our collaboration with the USFWS and the Princeton-Codora-Glenn and Provident Irrigation Districts (PCGID-PID). When completed the project will provide riparian habitat, stabilize the riverbank to protect the operation of a pumping plant and fish screen facility threatened by the meandering river, and remove upstream rock revetment in order to reinitiate natural river processes and mitigate for downstream rock placement. In addition, as planned, the project has the potential to supply a reliable source of water to 30,000 acres of agricultural areas and wetlands in Glenn County and will be the first project to remove rock revetment on the Sacramento River.
Several community events, such as birding tours, take place at the Bernard Flynn, Jr. Wildland Preserve.
Adapting and building upon past experience is at the heart of River Partners success. In 2004 River Partners continued to gain recognition for the quality of its restoration projects and began work on the O’Connor Lakes Unit of the California Department of Fish and Wildlife’s Feather River Wildlife Area. This 228-acre restoration project took our restoration work from rural areas with large floodplains to a region with urbanizing communities and a history of catastrophic levee failures. The sensitive reach between Marysville, Yuba City and Sutter Bypass on the Feather River encompasses an area where three rivers (Yuba, Bear and Feather) converge and the floodways narrow due to the levee system. As a result, our scientific approach to designing projects was refined to include more sophisticated hydraulic modeling and working with flood engineers to ensure that restoration projects do not pose a risk to public safety. After planting, floodwaters that entered and safely exited the site showed the success of our planting design.
As part of the O’Connor Lakes project, River Partners facilitated the signing of a multi-agency agreement among the Central Valley Flood Protection Board, the USFWS, California Department of Water Resources (DWR) and California Department of Fish and Game (now Fish and Wildlife). The multi-agency agreement allowed for the planting of the elderberry shrubs as part of the O’Connor Lakes habitat restoration project, without any obligation to mitigate for their loss if future maintenance or flood fighting activities damage or destroy the planted bushes. An agreement of this kind had never before been negotiated and illustrates River Partners ability to build consensus.
With a presence in the Feather River Watershed, River Partners worked with the flood management community on three of the largest setback levee projects in the state (Bear River Setback, Feather River Setback and Star Bend Setback). By working directly with hydraulic and civil engineers, we were able to integrate riparian vegetation as a design feature to protect newly constructed levees from erosion as a result of wind/wave action. Planting buffers on the floodway will help dissipate kinetic energy that could affect levee integrity. Moreover, multi-discipline collaboration results in projects that achieve both public safety and increase wildlife habitat.
As we celebrate our 15th anniversary, we look fondly on our accomplishments. Responding to the challenges we’ve encountered has advanced our restoration processes, built our confidence in efficiently restoring quality habitat, and broadened our range of services. Our drive has never been stronger as we look to the future to fulfill our important mission.
The above article originally appeared in the May 2014 issue of the River Partners Journal.