River Partners Acquires 285-acre Grayson Property for Wildlife and People
“I’m encouraging you guys to think big.”
Those were the words president John Carlon offered to the San Joaquin Region staff at the Grayson Restoration Project Kickoff Meeting.s
The Grayson Restoration Project began following our acquisition of 285 acres of riparian habitat and degraded floodplain from a well-respected dairyman in Stanislaus County. The Wildlife Conservation Board, through their Proposition 1-funded Streamflow Enhancement Program, provided funding for the acquisition in part because of the property’s potential to provide water quality and water quantity enhancements to the San Joaquin River system. While this restoration project will contribute to stream flow enhancements, this is just a starting point for the range of benefits this project will provide to the local community and region.
When John said to think big, he was asking River Partners staff to consider a type of project that we previously have not taken on – a restoration project located immediately adjacent to a small disadvantaged community that has the potential to impart lifestyle benefits to those residents as well as the region as a whole. The community of Grayson is home to fewer than 1,000 people with a median household income of $28,000. Residents have reportedly been consuming drinking water containing three times the recommended nitrate levels, which the City of Modesto pays a hefty sum to treat through a large filtration system. In addition, Grayson lies within the floodplain, and is subject to potentially high levels of damage during flood events. Through this project, River Partners has the opportunity to directly address these issues.
The idea that we could improve water quality for our residential neighbors is a new one for our staff. The details need to be hashed out, but what we know for sure (thanks to innovative water use modelling work done at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo) is that retiring agricultural irrigation on 185 acres of this floodplain will result in a reduction of about 900 acre feet of water use annually. That’s more than seven times Grayson annual water use.
River Partners is not the only organization to take recent interest in Grayson. With encouragement from the Mid-San Joaquin Regional Flood Management Stakeholder Group, Calif. Department of Water Resources (DWR) and the US Army Corps of Engineers (Corps) have also identified potential benefits of investing in Grayson. Most recently, the Corps selected Grayson as a site to conduct a baseline study of geomorphologic and hydrologic conditions of the San Joaquin River and Laird Slough. In coordination with DWR, Stanislaus County is actively considering funding opportunities to provide flood risk reduction to Grayson. The Grayson Restoration Project will complement these efforts by providing additional floodplain that can accept flood flows, potentially reducing flood elevations in Grayson.
Clean drinking water and reduced susceptibility to floods are important benefits to Grayson, but the most visible enhancements to the community will likely come through job creation, educational and recreational opportunities. River Partners maintains a strong partnership with the California Conservation Corps and the San Joaquin Regional Conservation Corps (CCC and Regional CC). The CCC and Regional CC will play an important role in the restoration and maintenance at the Grayson Project site over the next 5 to 10 years. Corpsmembers come from a variety of backgrounds, and many are from some of the small towns that our projects affect, including Grayson.
Part of the vision for restoration in Grayson includes the opportunity for residents to step out their back door and have a safe, usable trail system that connects them to a natural place. Engaging the community in conservation will be a primary consideration in this project. It’s unique in the Central Valley to have a wild place so close to one’s home.
As with all River Partners projects, the ecological benefits of this project are high priority and large-scale. 185 acres of the Graysono property are currently in agricultural production and will eventually be restored, however 100 acres hosts remnant riparian scrub and forest as well as oxbow wetland vegetation. Some of this relict habitat is degraded due to trespassing and illegal dumping, however the site hosts a community of native plants rarely seen on the banks of the San Joaquin River. Take a quick hike into the site, and it’ll take your breath away. Pass by the tires, abandoned vehicles, washed up flood debris and stands of giant reed on the edges of the property and you’ll see stately valley oak canopies dangling over the river channel with carpets of creeping wild rye and Santa Barbara sedge along the banks. Stands of box elder mix with thickets of wild rose and mugwort remind us of the structural diversity that once provided countless niches for riverside wildlife. The remnant vegetation here is inspirational for ecology nerds and will guide the restoration planning process.
Riparian habitat types in the Central Valley are rapidly dwindling, reducing available migration corridors for many mammals, birds and aquatic species. Restoration at this site will expand the riparian corridor in this region, complementing restoration work at both Dos Rios Ranch and the San Joaquin River National Wildlife Refuge. Since 1998, more than 5,000 acres of riverside lands have been protected and restored along 10 miles of the San Joaquin River downstream of Grayson, and 5 miles up the Tuolumne River towards Modesto. Long-time residents report that they’ve seen many more hawks and much larger hawks in the last 5 years than in they have in the last 60 in this region. We believe this is the effect of building a wildlife habitat corridor so large that it can support many self-sustaining prey populations. In this corridor, migrating songbirds have their pick of nesting sites, and wintering geese and ducks don’t overwhelm the wetlands. For anadromous salmon populations, this corridor provides stops along their epic migration to rest, forage, and grow strong before their trek out to sea. Foraging areas that are large enough that they can’t be destroyed by flood scour or inevitable fires are the only way we know of to provide resilience for recovering riverine wildlife.
As we challenge ourselves to think bigger on this and all of our future work, we encourage our partners to help us refine the vision, and to work with us to make it happen. It is exciting and at times overwhelming to manage all the different aspects of a multi-benefit restoration project, but with the help of the larger conservation community, we are certain that the bigger vision is not only possible, but likely. From our perspective, thinking bigger is necessary, and that is why we’re doing it.
The above article originally appeared in the Fall 2016 issue of the River Partners Journal.