May 2018 began a year of celebration of the 20th Anniversary for River Partners, a non-profit organization started by two valley farmers, Barney Flynn and John Carlon, for the purpose of restoring riparian habitat along the Sacramento River. Within a few years, Sacramento River Partners expanded its restoration activities to the San Joaquin and other rivers in the Central Valley and changed its name to River Partners.
Since its founding in 1998, River Partners has grown from a small group of scientists and field staff to over 38 full-time employees engaged in restoration work on 14 California rivers in the Central Valley and, since 2008, on San Diego’s Otay River watershed. We have expanded our collaborative partnership with state and federal agencies, local governments, NGOs, educational institutions and the general public.
Over these past twenty years the science and practice of riparian restoration has seen great progress and River Partners has been a major player in advancing floodplain policies and practices. Acting as both farmers and scientist, we have continually developed new and innovative methods for large-scale restoration and have shared the approach and methods through the Riparian Habitat Joint Venture’s California Riparian Habitat Restoration Handbook, River Partners Journal, Ted Talk, other journal and newspaper articles, classroom visits and scientific conferences. In California River Partners is recognized as the leading practitioner in the field.
We have developed a highly successful three-year plan for floodplain restoration, removing the irrigation network in the third year after which the vegetation is able to survive on its own; we utilize specific plant design features to attract targeted wildlife species; we incorporate hydraulic analysis of the proposed planting design to ensure safe floodwater conveyance, and invite biological monitoring of our fields. We continually adjust and modify our plant designs and vegetation and, as a result, wildlife continue to thrive on our properties. The growth of the science and practice of riparian restoration and the accompanying prominence of River Partners is related, in large part, to the newly found importance of floodplains, particularly in this era of global warming. Floodplains, of course, have the intrinsic value of recharging aquifers, providing wildlife habitat, supporting fish ecology and improving water quality. But Katrina’s devastation of New Orleans and the more recent colossal rain storms in Houston and North Carolina have given great emphasis to a primary role of floodplains, namely, the prevention or mitigation of devastating floods.
Flooding is the most common natural disaster in the United States and causes more property damage and fatalities than any other natural catastrophe. Here in the Central Valley, Sacramento is more vulnerable to catastrophic flooding than any other major city in the United States except New Orleans, according to federal officials, a threat created by the city’s sunken geography. Moreover, just days before Hurricane Harvey slammed into Texas and flooded Houston, a report from the California Department of Water Resources warned that “many flood facilities” in the Central Valley “face an unacceptably high chance of failure”
River Partners undertakes a multi-partnership and multi-benefit approach in its floodplain restoration projects. In efforts to restore and maintain the natural functions of floodplains, we promote the ecological, economic and cultural benefits that healthy floodplains offer. Since 1998, we have planted millions of trees, shrubs and native grasses, purchased from local nurseries. We have hired thousands of workers up and down the Central Valley and San Diego while, more recently, enjoying a successful working relationship with California Conservation Corps crews. And we have turned over restored properties to the Sacramento Wildlife Refuge, the San Joaquin River Natural Wildlife Refuge and California State Parks.
In the past 20 years River Partners has completed some 100 restoration projects and 17 more are presently underway. We are very proud of the success of these projects, from Sacramento River Partners first 50-acre project at Ord Bend in Glenn County to River Partners present restoration work on the 1603-acre Dos Rios Ranch at the confluence of the San Joaquin and Tuolumne Rivers. The purchase of Dos Rios Ranch by River Partners was made possible by the partnership of the Tuolumne River Trust and the collaborative financial support from seven federal, state and local agencies.
A current example of a collaborative effort on a multi-benefit project is the partnership existing between the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers, River Partners, The Nature Conservancy and Reclamation District 2140 to provide flood protection to the residents of Hamilton City.
There is, of course, a lot more to be done. The warming of the globe is projected to lead to an increase in the frequency and severity of extreme weather events which will result in more frequent and severe floods; the protection and restoration of river and stream floodplains will be critical to the avoidance of catastrophic flooding. But floodplains are also some of the most valuable ecosystems on earth. In the years to come, River Partners, in collaboration with our many partners, will continue to advance innovative and effective solutions that return floodplains to their natural connection to the river, enhance their flood protection qualities, and restore their complex and diverse ecosystems for the benefit of people and wildlife.