By Trevor Meadows, Restoration Biologist and Julie Rentner, Director of Special Projects
Like native plants themselves, ecological restoration is a growing industry with many challenges. No other industry must envision unknown project outcomes, convince funders to invest (often large sums of cash up front), and then adapt to whatever Mother Nature has to offer with little hope of turning a profit – or none, in the case of nonprofit organizations like River Partners. Did we mention that restoration success is often judged by the actions of wildlife – notoriously unpredictable and often not well understood? One reason for the dearth of large-scale restoration practitioners is this incredible diversity of obstacles that any one project may face. Whether it is the weather, the wildlife, or the floods and fires that will not cooperate, ecological restoration is a game of rolling with it and sticking to the project, even when the odds seem overwhelming. But the rewards are very satisfying – recovering beautiful vistas, wildlife populations, environmental quality, and outdoor experiences. River Partners learned a long time ago that it is through partnerships that such positive outcomes are attained, and often the most successful partnerships are unlikely, and forged from adversity.
This year, River Partners and the Kern River Corridor Endowment are delighted to see the reward after several grueling years of fundraising, planning, negotiations, and contracting for the Panorama Vista Preserve in Bakersfield, CA. In late 2014, the team kicked off the preparation and planting of the largest block of restoration yet – 129 acres located on both the north and south sides of the Kern River. With funding provided by the California River Parkways Program, California Wildlife Conservation Board, Central Valley Project Improvement Act Habitat Restoration Program, National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, Partners for Fish and Wildlife, Pacific Gas and Electric, and Chevron, this project has leveraged an economy of scale. With acreage of this size, restoration crews are able to effectively prepare the site, plant tens of thousands of native trees and shrubs, manage a complex drip irrigation system, and perform weed control using tractors instead of back-breaking hand labor.
Arriving on site from their comfy nursery home over two months ahead of schedule, the native plants for the project had acclimated to the Bakersfield climate nicely while restoration crews and volunteers watered and cared for them daily. The planting was initiated at a public event in mid-October 2014 celebrating the second contribution to the project from PG&E. Advertised through social media and the usual Kern County conservation circles, this event garnered participation from 24 volunteers, 9 Conservation Corpsmembers, as well as the attention of the Bakersfield Californian newspaper and the office of Kern County Supervisor Mike Maggard. Plants installed include native species that once carpeted the Kern River floodplain such as Fremont’s cottonwood, western sycamore, arroyo willow, black willow, buttonbush, bladderpod, and arrowweed. Mother Nature has been favorable so far, providing generous waterings in December and January in the form of much-needed rain. Nefarious people, however, have not been so generous…
The project started with the installation of an irrigation takeout from a City of Bakersfield canal. The City was kind enough to grant permission to use some of its water to establish the plants, recognizing that the project will improve groundwater recharge for the City and will benefit the larger Kern River Parkway for decades to come. No sooner did we get the takeout installed did we discover that the power lines running to that location were not owned and managed by PG&E (as was previously thought), but were private lines installed and managed by Chevron. Understandably, Chevron shared our concern about vandalism and requested that we install a beefed up security gate around the control panel. While the re-establishment of power was negotiated, we had to run the irrigation system with a generator. The evening of the very first day with the generator, the wire thieves paid us a visit. As a result, we fast-tracked the construction of a security cage that would enclose both the control panel and the generator. A week later, the thieves had us again and we were forced to rethink the cage structure. Poured concrete, expanded metal, and a lot of welding finally yielded a design that appears to be theft-proof, at least for now. Chevron continues to work generously and collaboratively with us to provide reliable power for the project.
With that obstacle under our belts, it was time to turn to the well-drilling required for the other half of the project. With the California drought worsening, well drilling became the new gold rush in California. In late 2014, well drillers in the San Joaquin Valley were reporting record waitlists (some topping two years) and record prices for their services. If the restoration project would require groundwater, we would be waiting a long time to get our hands on it, and it would have potentially exceeded the budget. Enter the generous neighbors of Panorama Vista Preserve and equestrian enthusiasts of the “Rancho Not-So-Grande”. Having sat on a waitlist for some time, the neighbors had a well-driller scheduled to arrive within the month, to develop a well that would likely yield much more water than was required by the Ranch. We asked if there was a partnership opportunity and were delighted to find that this was the solution for which we were waiting! A few months later, after a successful drill, water was secured for the entire project.
January 2015 saw the completion of the large-scale plantings. In total, approximately 25,000 native plants were installed, providing jobs to over 20 Conservation Corpmembers as well as endless opportunities for area students and residents to engage with their local environments. The plants will be cared for (irrigated and kept relatively weed-free) for three growing seasons, then will be turned loose to fend for themselves.
Whatever obstacles are thrown at the project next, we have no doubt the partnerships forged amongst River Partners, the Kern River Corridor Endowment, Chevron, City of Bakersfield, Rancho Not-So-Grande, the project funders, and the countless volunteers will overcome them, creating a lasting habitat improvement benefiting people and the environment along the Kern River Parkway.