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$8.6 million contract will restore 770 acres as part of J Levee project

Chico Enterprise-Record - October 11, 2016

By Heather Hacking

Chico-based River Partners has landed an $8.6 million contract to transform 770 acres of land along the J Levee seen in the aerial photo from June 2004

Hamilton City — Since 1998 there have been slow but steady changes along the Sacramento River. Areas that had been managed by man have returned to something closer to the wild. Native trees and plants have thrived

Just south of Ord Bend Park is a very visible example of habitat restoration by Chico-based River Partners. Visitors pull into a gravel parking lot and pass by a brown sign explaining where to go and what to see. From there, trails meander through trees and shrubs intentionally planted more than a dozen years ago, then nurtured until nature could continue the job.

NOW FOR THE J LEVEE

The next local project for River Partners involves the first phase of the J Levee project just south of Hamilton City. The estimated $67.9 million project will protect Hamilton City from floods.

Lee Ann Grigsby-Puente has worked with Reclamation District 2140 for 20 years to lobby for the J Levee project, most importantly to garner state and federal funding.

The Nature Conservancy was critical to the J Levee work moving forward by obtaining and then donating land for the project. That land served as the “local match” to obtain federal funds.

Grigsby-Puente said the earth-moving portion of the first phase of the project is 80 percent complete. This fact is reassuring to people in town who remember two floods in the 1970s and five emergency reinforcements since 1983.

The project will include 6.8 miles of setback levees along the west side of the Sacramento River. Setback levees allow the river a little more room to meander over time.

River Partners’ upcoming job is a $8.6 million contract to restore 770 acres of land within the new levees to habitat, explained River Partners president John Carlon.

WHAT THE PROJECT IS

As with other projects by River Partners, the approach is much like farming, with plants chosen carefully and the new plants managed until they are able to survive without help.

In the case of Phase I of the J Levee, there will be 160,000 new trees and plants put in the ground.

River Partners has had very good success with this strategy. Many of the native plants are purchased from Floral Native Nursery in Chico, which cultivates plants adapted for the local landscape. These seeds for this particular project have been collected locally by the Nature Conservancy, Carlon explained.

The J Levee project is the first in the nation under federal Army Corps of Engineers guidelines that combine flood risk reduction and ecosystem restoration, Carlon said.

He said he’s excited because there are so many benefits, including groundwater recharge, improved salmon habitat along the bank of the river and habitat inland from the water.

Phase II is still to come, said Tyler Stalker, spokesman for the Corps of Engineers, which is responsible for the project and most of the funding.

Phase I and phase II combined will cover 1,500 acres, Stalker explained.

WORKING NEAR HOME

Carlon said it’s nice to have another project in the Sacramento Valley. In the early years of the company, most of the restoration work was in this area. As those project were completed, the company branched out to work along the Stanislaus River, Tuolumne and San Joaquin rivers. River Partners now has offices in Turlock and San Diego.

The work done in the Sacramento Valley is the most mature, and provides a nice showcase of how restoration projects can thrive. Carlon said he’s proud the early Ord Bend Unit now has colonies of threatened Sacramento Valley longhorned elderberry beetles, for example. “They’re actually living there,” he said.

After all this time, there is zero maintenance at the Ord Bend Unit, now owned by the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge — no mowing, no spraying. Starthistle has not taken over, which is a triumph.

Contact reporter Heather Hacking at hhacking@chicoer.com.