A farm north of downtown Sacramento has a new purpose beyond growing walnuts, wheat and tomatoes. Now, it also has a role in the capital city's long-term flood protection.
The 2,962-acre Sacramento River Ranch lies in an oblong swath of land in Yolo County known as the Elkhorn basin, which straddles the gap between the Sacramento River and the Yolo Bypass.
It also occupies a prominent bend in the river immediately opposite Sacramento's Natomas basin, one of the city's riskiest flood zones. As such, when the river swells during major storms, the ranch and its levee system provide a vital bulwark to protect Sacramento against floods.
To ensure this protection lasts into the future, the California Department of Water Resources recently paid for a conservation easement on the ranch. The easement prevents development on the land, ensuring it will remain in farming, which stands up to flooding better than homes.
To put that more bluntly, the deal helps ensure levees on the farm will not be raised beyond their current height. This means that in severe storms, the farm is likely to flood first, serving as a kind of hydraulic relief valve for Sacramento and its nearly half-million residents.
The city of West Sacramento, in Yolo County, receives similar benefits because it lies downstream.
"The reality is that rural areas have a lower levee standard than urban areas," said Earl Nelson, chief of the flood protection corridor branch at DWR. "We don't want it to ever flood. But if something happens that's beyond everyone's control, we don't want two urban areas at risk."
Levees on the farm now are below a 100-year flood protection standard. Those on the other side of the Sacramento River, protecting Natomas, were recently upgraded by the Sacramento Area Flood Control Agency to a 200-year standard.
The concern is that if the Elkhorn basin land ever was urbanized, state law would require its levees to meet a 200-year standard. Instead of overtopping in a severe storm and diverting a flood's force, those levees, if they were upgraded, would concentrate floods against Sacramento levees.
The deal closed on June 27 at a cost of $8.9 million, funded by Proposition 1E, a flood-control bond measure approved by California voters in 2006.
Erik Vink, senior project manager at the Trust for Public Land, said it is the largest conservation easement ever sold on cultivated farmland in California.
"There's nothing in this easement that prevents property owners in the Elkhorn Basin from improving their levees," said Vink, whose group facilitated the sale. "But it's not economically feasible for that to occur as long as it remains in agriculture. So if there were to be overtopping or a breach on that stretch of the river, it's pretty clearly going to go to the west and not the east."
The idea is not that different from the Yolo Bypass itself, considered one of the most successful flood-control features in the state.
DWR owns easements that allow it to flood the 60,000-acre bypass - part of the Sacramento River's historic flood plain - in winter. The rest of the year, it is cultivated by the farmers who hold title to the land.
Still, the idea of planning a new kind of sacrifice zone on farms protected by levees was controversial when first proposed by SAFCA in 2006.
The first such deal, also in the Elkhorn basin, came in 2008 when the Sacramento Valley Conservancy purchased the 1,682-acre Knaggs Ranch, located immediately south of Sacramento River Ranch, for $11.9 million. DWR and SAFCA provided $5 million and $3 million, respectively, toward the purchase price.
Some officials in Yolo County were wary of the deal but did not oppose it. The same is true of the River Ranch easement.
"It does not increase the likelihood of flooding," acknowledged Yolo County Supervisor Matt Rexroad. "But it always kind of irks me a bit when people in Sacramento look to the west and say, 'Oh, we'll just flood over there instead.' "
In addition to flood-safety benefits for Sacramento and West Sacramento, the easement protects prime farmland and important wildlife habitat. The area already has smaller easements to conserve wetlands and habitat for Swainson's hawks.
The ranch itself was sold in December to farmer David te Velde. The easement was sold by the prior owners, Wildlands Inc. and its partner, Resource Landholdings, but took awhile to close.
Title to the easement will be held by the Wildlife Heritage Foundation, a nonprofit that will ensure its terms are upheld in perpetuity.
Te Velde said that even though his farming operation does not benefit from the easement sale, he is pleased with it. He grows walnuts, rice, tomatoes, squash, wheat, sunflowers and alfalfa on the ranch.
"I bought the land knowing they were going to put that on there, and I didn't really have a problem with it," he said. "I'm a conservationist myself, and I like to see some land remain in farmland, so I'm actually for it."
Contact The Bee's Matt Weiser at (916) 321-1264. Follow him on Twitter @matt_weiser.