Missions Accomplished: The Collaborative Purchase of Dos Rios Ranch

By Irv Schiffman, Board Chair

Egret at Dos Rios Ranch. Photo by James Scott Photography.

The purchase by River Partners of the 1603 acres Dos Rios Ranch from the family of Bill Lyons Jr. for $21.8 million could not have been accomplished without the generous involvement of many individuals and groups.

Dos Rios Ranch, located at the confluence of the Tuolumne and San Joaquin Rivers in Stanislaus County, lies between the Tuolumne River Regional Park and the San Joaquin River National Wildlife Refuge along a stretch of river proposed for the Lower Tuolumne River Parkway. The Tuolumne River Trust envisioned the ranch as a critical addition to the Parkway and the perfect anchor of its western edge.

River Partners has been engaged in restoration work on the San Joaquin River National Wildlife Refuge since 2002. Sitting directly across the river from the 6,950-acre Refuge, the purchase of Dos Rios Ranch offered the opportunity to combine the two properties and thus create one of the largest contiguous riparian and floodplain conservation areas in the Central Valley. Moreover, both River Partners and the Tuolumne River Trust shared the goals of having Dos Rios become an important habitat resource for wildlife, recreation and non-structural flood control.

Having decided to work together to obtain the funds needed to purchase Dos Rios, the two non-profit organizations sought out state and federal agencies whose various missions would be furthered through the preservation and restoration of the natural characteristics of the property.

For the Department of Water Resources (DWR), which contributed $2.9 million to the effort, the acquisition of Dos Rios Ranch represented a nonstructural solution to flood management while enhancing wildlife habitat in a flood corridor. DWR concluded that the transient storage capacity of the Ranch – up to 10,000 feet of floodwater attenuation – provided the opportunity to reduce peak flow flood risk on upstream and downstream reaches of the San Joaquin and Tuolumne Rivers. This would also reduce potential taxpayer liability as a result of decreased pressure on surrounding levees and riverbanks.

The Bureau of Reclamation’s interest in the project stemmed from its control and operation of Friant Dam on the upper San Joaquin River in the Sierra Nevada foothills of Fresno County. The Bureau recognized that such large dam projects have major impacts on riparian habitats by modifying channels, converting wetlands and reducing flows. Its contribution of $806,736 toward the purchase of Dos Rios was part of its statewide effort to “restore and enhance environmental values that were adversely affected by the construction and operation of the CVP [Central Valley Project].” Specifically, mitigation in this instance would be implemented by protecting “the riparian corridor, establish a riparian brush rabbit colony at the site, and protect floodplain values for endangered species such as the Least Bell’s vireo and other at-risk species at the ranch.”

Bill Lyons, John Carlon (River Partners), and James Gore (Asst. Chief, USDA-NRCS) at the Dos Rios Acquisition Celebration in May 2012. Photo by Armen Carlon.

The California Wildlife Conservation Board contributed $5.5 million from the Habitat Conservation Fund toward the purchase of Dos Rios Ranch. In 1990 the citizens of California passed Proposition 117 establishing an annual 30 million-dollar Habitat Conservation Fund for the protection of wildlife habitat of state importance. The Board took notice of the fact that planned restoration activities would benefit a large number of federal and state threatened and endangered species including the Riparian brush rabbit, Riparian woodrat, Least Bell’s vireo, Yellow warbler, Valley Elderberry Longhorn Beetle, Swainson’s hawk, Spring-run Chinook Salmon, Fall-run Chinook salmon, and Steelhead trout.

The largest contribution to the purchase of Dos Rios, $6.9 million, was made by the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service via its Wetland Reserve Program. In the 28 years between 1983 and 2011, Dos Rios Ranch experienced flooding seven times, about once every 4 years. The Wetland Reserve Program of the service is designed to take food-prone agricultural property out of harm’s way and convert it to productive wetland and habitat. In a happy coincidence the celebration of the purchase of Dos Rios Ranch was held in May during National Wetlands Month.

The California Natural Resource Agency’s contribution of $2.6 million constituted an award by the Secretary of Resources under the California River Parkways Program. The Program provides funds to public agencies and non-profits to develop river parkways in their communities. As stated above, Dos Rios Ranch is a critical element of the Lower Tuolumne River Parkway and will contribute greatly to public access to the river, a major goal of the state’s River Parkways Program.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has had a long-standing interest in Dos Rios Ranch and back in 1989 originally sought to buy the Mape’s Ranch of which Dos Rios was then a part. The property is on the Pacific Flyway, the aerial route for the migrating birds from Canada and Alaska. It is the way station for 250 or more types of birds, including the endangered Aleutian Canada Goose. At that time there was a fear that the Mape’s Ranch would be developed as a new town to house the new campus of the University of California along with residences and commercial structures. That campus ended up in Merced and the threat to develop the ranch ended. The Fish and Wildlife Service, whose mission is to protect threatened and endangered species, contributed $1 million to the purchase price from the North American Conservation Act – a funding source designated to preserve and enhance wetland habitats for migratory birds across the continent.

The San Francisco Public Utilities Commission’s allocated $2 million toward the purchase of the Dos Rios ranch from their Watershed and Environmental Improvement Program. The Commission operates the Hetch Hetchy Project in the Upper Tuolumne watershed and draws water from the river in order to supply water and power to the city of San Francisco and surrounding Bay Area communities. The contribution furthers the Commission’s policy of environmental stewardship by operating “its water system in a manner that protects and restores native fish and wildlife downstream of its dams and water diversions,” and “maintains the integrity of the natural resources, restores habitats for native species, and enhances ecosystem function.”

And so, after close to 10 years of prodigious efforts by both the Tuolumne River Trust and River Partners, the sale of the Dos Rios Ranch was concluded. Restoration efforts on the ranch will begin shortly and over time the many benefits of the acquisition will become apparent. Already apparent, however, are the many advantages of agency collaboration and the success of two non-profits in finding such willing and able partners.

The above article originally appeared in the Winter 2012 issue of the River Partners Journal.