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Demonstration Projects - Regional Water Management Planning and Dos Rios Ranch

By: Andrew Rayburn and Julie Rentner, River Partners

The San Joaquin River is the State’s hardest working river:

  • It is a water delivery system for farms and towns
  • It is a public safety feature conveying flood flows away from urban centers
  • It is a migration corridor for fish and wildlife
  • It is a resource for all of the valley to enjoy.

With so many different interests all relying on the river, there are bound to be conflicts. This year’s drought has really highlighted this fact.

To attempt to do a better job managing and prioritizing state investment in the many values and services provided by the river, California’s Department of Water Resources (DWR) has led a visionary effort to support integration of these values in MULTI-BENEFIT projects – projects that provide integrated ecosystem enhancement, flood protection, water supply reliability, and other benefits (for more information about multi-benefit projects, see: www.multibenefitproject.org/).

You may have participated in or heard about the IRWMP – Integrated Water Management Planning program which attempts to address the issues and differing perspectives of all the entities involved in water management through mutually beneficial solutions. The San Joaquin River is represented in 8 different IRWM plans.

In 2006, DWR also began a comprehensive review of flood safety throughout the Central Valley, and in its 2012 Central Valley Flood Protection Plan, laid out a strategy for developing regional vision for flood safety that promotes integration of flood safety and other benefits, and prioritizes investment in flood safety based on regional and state-wide needs (www.water.ca.gov/cvfmp/regionalplan/). The San Joaquin River is represented in 3 different Regional Flood Management Plans.

Is your head spinning yet?

While it may be impossible to track all of the planning efforts and overlapping interests in the river, and it may seem hopeless that the myriad planning efforts will ever yield real environmental improvement, DEMONSTRATION projects can provide an opportunity to engage locally in tangible work while effecting the discussion regionally.

The Dos Rios Ranch project is one example of such a demonstration. Located at the confluence of the San Joaquin and Tuolumne Rivers, this 2,100-acre project aims to restore functional fish and wildlife habitat to formerly degraded floodplains, provide enhanced flood safety for downstream populations (like Lathrop, Manteca and Stockton), provide enhanced water supply reliability (by retiring riparian diversions leaving more water in the river for downstream users), contribute meaningfully to carbon sequestration objectives through tree planting, enhance regional quality of life through development of outdoor recreation and education opportunities, and reduce future regulatory conflict by recovering endangered species and habitats in regionally appropriate settings. River Partners owns Dos Rios Ranch and the adjacent Hidden Valley Ranch, immediately adjacent to the 8,000-acre San Joaquin River National Wildlife Refuge – together this is the largest floodplain restoration project in California, right here along 10 miles of the San Joaquin River between Friant Dam and the Delta.

Planning multi-benefit restoration at Dos Rios Ranch is a thoughtful, collaborative process involving nonprofit and community partners, academic researchers, private-sector consultants, and River Partners staff. Funders include:

  • USDA Natural Resource Conservation Service
  • California Department of Water Resources
  • California Wildlife Conservation Board
  • US Bureau of Reclamation
  • US Fish and Wildlife Service
  • San Francisco Public Utilities Commission

The Tuolumne River Trust coordinates volunteer activities involving students and community members, and both Point Blue Conservation Science and the USFWS Endangered Species Recovery Program provide wildlife technical expertise to guide the project.

Since the first tree went in the ground in 2013, over 140,000 native woody plants have been planted on 600 acres, including trees such as cottonwood, willows, and valley oaks, and shrubs including golden current, California wild rose, and California blackberry. These restoration efforts have provided employment for dozens of area youths as members of the California Conservation Corps, and volunteer opportunities to hundreds of local students. These actions are also providing critical habitat improvement that could lead to the delisting of a few endangered species including riparian brush rabbit, riparian woodrat, and Valley Elderberry Longhorn Beetle. Over 10,000 acre-feet of annual water diversions will be permanently retired over the coming decade, and more than 7 miles of riverbanks will be enhanced.

It may seem that this many partners with different objectives and interests would be tough to bring to the table with a shared vision. What we’ve learned as a project proponent for this massive undertaking ($38m allocated to date) is that as long as the project is designed to ALIGN with the goals and objectives of the region, and the project proponents are truly committed to engagement with as many stakeholders as possible, finding common ground is not too hard. And yes, the project is supported by the local IRWMP and Regional Flood Management Plan among many others.

As future phases of restoration are planned and implemented at Dos Rios Ranch in the next decade, as the wildlife re-populate this demonstration project, and as the inevitable flood of the future is absorbed by the dedicated floodplains at Dos Rios Ranch, we hope that the years of collaboration and planning will result in a model that can be replicated throughout California. As we can demonstrate success recovering the river in the complex political climate of today, we hope to stimulate others to follow our lead and embrace the sometimes intimidating world of multi-benefit project design. If you have questions about the Dos Rios Ranch project, please visit here http://www.riverpartners.org/ or email info@riverpartners.org