River Partners' mission is to create wildlife habitat for the benefit of people and the environment.

Home » News/Events » The Journal » Vol. 12 Issue 3 » Connecting People to Rivers and Riparian Areas

Connecting People to Rivers and Riparian Areas

  • By Julie Rentner, Director of Special Projects

(Above) Boaters enjoying a River Partners canoe tour on the Sacramento River

River Partners’ mission focuses on two important targets: people and the environment. As the drought debates heat up, I have been reflecting on our mission and how our work fits into the broader picture of California’s economy and culture. I am puzzled when I hear divisive rhetoric (or read freeway signs) about water for the environment versus water for people, or the old “fish versus farmers” argument. People depend upon the natural world in many ways, farmers perhaps more than anyone else. How on earth can we separate the two?

(Above) Fishing has always been a popular activity in the Central Valley. Here, Caesar “Nick” Mazoni poses with a salmon at his house in Modesto in the late 1940s (Photograph courtesy of Paul Cadrett, USFWS)

No matter how you slice it, everybody wants a healthy water system that includes predictable supplies for people and the environment. I have never met a farmer who does not celebrate the natural world. Even those “hedge-fund almonds” we hear about in the media are cultivated and processed by folks who watch the weather, know the soil, and remember how strongly natural forces can influence their livelihoods.

So, how exactly is River Partners working towards both of our mission’s important targets in this drought-stricken and divided Central Valley? Through our collaborative, multi-benefit restoration projects, we are working hard to connect people to rivers and the riparian ecosystems that surround them. These connections have become frayed or even broken for many Central Valley residents, but that was not always the case.

There are a lot of folks farming in the Central Valley on their family’s lands. Grandparents and great-grandparents recall a time when the river was not tame, and wildlife was abundant on the edges of their farms. The eyes of some old timers light up as they describe how they would spend their afternoons after toiling all day on the farm or ranch – fishing from the river’s edge, taking a date out to the river to watch the salmon run, hunting quail or pheasant in the brush, or taking advantage of local swimming holes. The connection they felt to the natural world went far beyond just making a living. The time spent enjoying the rivers and the surrounding forests was often a reward for a hard day’s work outside under the hot California sun.

Today, we sit in air-conditioned offices or vehicles, rushing to meetings and other appointments before returning home in the evening to prepare for the next day, or tuck the kids in after their sports practice. We have made it so easy to neglect the challenge and the rewards that rivers and riparian areas provide. Rivers have been channelized and disconnected from historic floodplains. Those farm edges that once provided prized hunting grounds have been overtaken by weeds, criminals or trash heaps. We worry about people having access to the river because of the damage they will do to our property and the liability we might face if they get hurt. I have to imagine that if we could all experience that quiet fishing afternoon or that date night down by the river, we would be a little bit happier, and probably a lot healthier!

River Partners’ projects provide many opportunities for people to connect with rivers and riparian areas, such as birdwatching and hiking along shady trails. You will have to get up early and get off the beaten path to enjoy most of the areas we've restored – they are usually not in the heart of the city. I recently listened to a talk from a local Audubon member who recalled traveling all over the state to birdwatch before realizing that right in his neighborhood, wildlife were returning to the San Joaquin River National Wildlife Refuge in significant numbers. The act of birdwatching – getting up early, gearing up, driving out to the river, and quietly hiking around until you hear that subtle thrash or chirp – creates a satisfying connection with natural world that is enhanced by the effort that goes into it. Fishing, hunting, and boating opportunities are also enhanced by our projects, providing additional outlets for people to enjoy the outdoors.

Assisting with the recovery of wildlife species is another meaningful way to connect ourselves to rivers and riparian areas. One of the most rewarding experiences I have had at River Partners was releasing a captive-bred riparian brush rabbit into habitat along the lower Stanislaus River – habitat that River Partners had restored just a few years earlier. Years of hard work were required – traveling the state to meetings, modifying projects to accommodate stakeholder concerns, working through complicated logistics to get permits and funding and actually beginning the restoration process. The simple act of releasing a tiny rabbit and watching it scurry into the brush on a site that will be protected for wildlife into perpetuity was very rewarding. I know that the connection I felt that day to the river and the riparian habitat destined to become the rabbit’s home was a direct result of putting in the hard work to get there.

Perhaps one of the best connections River Partners creates for people is in the work experience we provide for members of the state and regional Conservation Corps. Each year, our projects create thousands of paid work hours for hundreds of young adults who remove weeds, install irrigation, and plant native species. The work for corpsmembers is challenging, but they get to see firsthand the payoff of their labor as plants grow and wildlife return to project sites. I recently listened to a former corpsmember reflect on his work experience, and the reverence he had for the natural world was inspirational. We also work with partners to host volunteer planting days for local students and adults to encourage folks to put in the time and energy restoring habitats.

(Above) Volunteers planting at a River Partners’ Dos Rios Ranch project (Photograph courtesy of Tuolumne River Trust)

There is a lot of suffering in the Central Valley, especially in the San Joaquin region. Public health is in decline, childhood obesity is on the rise, and people have very few opportunities to exercise in safe outdoor settings. Water quality and supply are out of balance, prompting local politicians to argue for federal legislation to import more water. Drinking water is disappearing for a number of towns, and the ground is literally sinking – subsidence has irreversibly changed the capacity of aquifers, and ruined shallow wells that once supplied water for cities and farms. The drought has magnified all of these challenges, but now is also the perfect time to reinforce connections between people, rivers, and riparian to the benefit of all.

River Partners will continue to restore Central Valley rivers and riparian areas for the benefit of people and the environment. We will also continue to repair connections between people and the natural world by providing opportunities for river-side recreation, education and reflection, and meaningful work on our projects. I encourage you to take advantage of these and other opportunities. Roll up your sleeves and spend a day planting native species with other volunteers. Go for a walk along a river, and take a deep breath in the cool morning air. Take advantage of hunting, fishing, and boating opportunities and support local conservation actions that create and enhance additional habitat. Finally, consider stopping occasionally on your drive home to appreciate a nice sunset over a river bridge, setting aside a few minutes to consider your own connections to the natural world around you.