Thriving Plants and Helping Hands at Dos Rios Ranch

By Heyo Tjarks, Restoration Ecologist, and Jeff Holt, Restoration Biologist

River Partners Biologist Jeff Holt helping students identify native wildlife found at Dos Rios Ranch.

It is an exciting time regarding ongoing restoration efforts at the 2,100-acre Dos Rios Ranch, located at the confluence of the San Joaquin and Tuolumne rivers in the San Joaquin Valley just west of Modesto. This unique site is being restored in phases by River Partners with funding from numerous state and federal partners and collaborative support from many conservation organizations. Dos Rios Ranch is one of our flagship projects due to the potential for increasing floodplain reconnection, flood safety, and habitat for threatened and endangered birds, mammals, fish, and insects.

The first 198 acres of the project were planted in 2013 with a diverse mix of woody trees and shrubs that are growing extremely well. Fast-growing species like cottonwoods are already 20 feet tall, and wildlife species have already begun using these fields as habitat. One of goals of the project is to create habitat for many different species of birds, and we are eagerly awaiting the results of bird surveys to be performed in the fields by Point Blue Conservation Science staff this summer. Earlier this year, after two years of maintenance and weed control, we planted native understory species in these same fields that have successfully established even in this period of severe drought. We have learned over the years that a dense, native understory community is critical for controlling weeds and providing additional habitat. Meanwhile, an additional 401 acres planted with native woody species in 2014 are thriving thanks to the hard work of our field staff and members of the California Conservation Corps.

Native understory species planted in 2015, including mugwort (bottom left) and creeping wildrye (bottom right) have established well in fields planted with woody species in 2013. Meanwhile, native woody species planted in 2014 are thriving on the adjacent 401 acres (top).

One of the many benefits people of all ages receive from habitat restoration projects is the chance to volunteer for, and learn from, environmentally-friendly projects in their local communities. Over the past 14 months, the Tuolumne River Trust (TRT) has been utilizing Dos Rios Ranch as both an outdoor classroom and as a community volunteer site. TRT has teamed up with local elementary schools, offering field days for hands-on learning where students have the opportunity to identify native plants and wildlife and understand the diverse roles of California’s rivers. TRT has also hosted several outreach events for local community members to plant native trees and shrubs as part of the riparian restoration efforts. River Partners is also working with TRT, East Stanislaus RCD, and the Center for Land-Based Learning to implement a Student and Landowner Education and Watershed Stewardship (SLEWS) program at Dos Rios Ranch in late 2015. SLEWS programs engage California high school students in habitat restoration projects that enhance classroom learning, develop leadership skills, and result in real positive impact for the environment.

Community volunteers pose for a picture in spring of 2015 after helping plant native trees and shrubs.

All this hard work has allowed River Partners to successfully fundraise for additional phases of the Dos Rios Ranch project. Just recently, we learned that we have been awarded a significant grant from the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation Central Valley Project Conservation Program to fund restoration of an additional 175 acres adjacent to the San Joaquin River. We are excited by the restoration potential of this area since it is a very dynamic portion of the property. The area floods relatively often, a factor that was carefully considered during the restoration planning process. The resulting design includes breaches in historic “farmer berms” to improve floodplain reconnection, ephemeral swales to enhance drainage, highground flood refugia for riparian brush rabbits and other wildlife, and native vegetation that will tolerate flooding disturbance.

The above article originally appeared in the Spring 2015 issue of the River Partners Journal.