A Model for the Future – Closing a Chapter at the San Joaquin River National Wildlife Refuge

By Julie Rentner, Director of Special Projects

SJRNWR Timeline

In 2001, River Partners’ Board of Directors travelled to the newly acquired, 3,166-acre “West Unit” of the San Joaquin River National Wildlife Refuge to brainstorm on large-scale wildlife habitat restoration, and make an historic decision: to change our name from ‘Sacramento River Partners’ to ‘River Partners’ symbolizing a shift in geographic interest from our home in the north state to rivers that need help all over the western US. Since that meeting, we have been working closely with the USFWS Refuge staff and management to design and implement the largest contiguous block of riparian and floodplain restoration in the Central Valley. Thanks to generous contributions and strategic partnerships with a variety of agencies and organizations (see inset), 2014 represents the last year of maintenance for the final phase of this large-scale restoration initiative. 2,500 acres of floodplains lands that had previously been cleared for agriculture have now been returned to native vegetation communities strategically designed to support endangered species. Hundreds of additional acres of remnant habitat areas have been enhanced through weed removal and grass seeding – particularly after large floods and fires. These efforts have brought over $35million in competitive grants to Stanislaus County, and over 250,000 labor hours for Central Valley residents. River Partners is so pleased to have been a project partner in this astounding accomplishment, and it deserves some reflection as we celebrate 15 years of organizational growth and achievement.

As a model wildlife recovery and flood management project, what lessons can we take from this experience as we look to the future at Dos Rios Ranch and Hidden Valley Ranch, and beyond?

First, and perhaps most important: It takes a village to complete large-scale wildlife recovery. From excellent scientists to responsible land managers to creative engineers to flexible vendors to labor to NGOs to agencies, it is impossible to describe all of the folks in the local, regional and statewide ‘neighborhood’ who came together to support this initiative. Without broad support from a diverse team, such a large outcome will not be possible in the future.

Second: It takes vision and guts to initiate a large project, and it takes strong and respectful team leadership to bring such a large vision to life. Throughout the years, there have been challenges. From funding freezes and government shutdowns to floods and fires to lacking resources to staff turnover, it is impossible to name all of the specific lessons that have been learned by this productive partnership, except that flexibility and resolve are required to lead such an incredible effort. Without the visionary leadership and unfailing resolve of the USFWS, such a model project will struggle to get off the ground in the future.

Finally: Large-scale habitat restoration initiatives must be founded in good science, and must be flexible enough to change course as new science comes to light. When this project was first conceived, the primary value was thought to be in the “Frequently Activated Floodplain” – the fish habitat areas that would be reconnected to the river through eventual levee breaching. As we watched dry year after dry year, punctuated with the large flood events of 2006 and 2011, we learned that the floodplain reconnection is not only difficult and very important, but the habitat value of the restored floodplain during non-flood years was very important too! From yellow warblers and least Bell’s vireo to riparian brush rabbit and riparian woodrat, this project showed us all that our floodplains are very diverse habitat areas with potential to provide species recovery for several critters at the same time. Without a team culture of adaptive management and relentless self-assessment, such a multi-faceted initiative will not achieve such a myriad of benefits in the future.

As we look to the future of Mid-San Joaquin River Region and its upcoming conservation and integrated water management initiatives, and envision large-scale floodplain restoration in the San Joaquin Valley and beyond, these lessons of team-reliance, strong leadership and adaptive management should guide our efforts and our investments. 15 years in, River Partners is excited to be able to continue contributing to large-scale initiatives in California. We hope the next 15 years bring as many learning opportunities and excellent partnerships for wildlife recovery successes as the past 15.


  • US Fish and Wildlife Service
  • USDA – Natural Resources Conservation Service
  • US Army Corps of Engineers
  • US Bureau of Reclamation
  • California Natural Resources Agency, including Department of Water Resources and Department of Fish and Wildlife
  • California Wildlife Conservation Board
  • State Water Resources Control Board
  • Endangered Species Recovery Program at CSU Stanislaus
  • Point Blue Conservation Science
  • Ducks Unlimited
  • Tuolumne River Trust
  • California Conservation Corps
  • San Joaquin Regional Conservation Corps
  • Youth Conservation Corps

The above article originally appeared in the Spring 2014 issue of the River Partners Journal.