Merced River Ranch restoration celebrated

On a clear autumn morning last week, almost two dozen Central Valley residents stood beside the Merced River, watching the fall run of Chinook salmon. Among the individuals gathered were community members and agency representatives involved in the Merced River Ranch Channel and Floodplain Restoration Plan. The project was completed this year.

A celebratory gathering and barbecue were held to recognize those who contributed to the restoration’s success.

“This project was envisioned almost 15 years ago,” said Rhonda Reed.

As the San Joaquin River branch chief of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries’ West Coast region, Reed was more than gratified to see the fruition of her efforts. In the late 1990s she became instrumental in advocating for grant funding to purchase the property.

Merced River Ranch is a section of land purchased by the Cal-Fed Bay-Delta program in 1999. The ranch encompasses 318 acres along both sides of the waterway.

The objective was to redesign the structure and flow of the river. These changes will improve the natural habitat for salmon and steelhead spawning.

According to the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, adverse changes in the habitat have occurred over time due to human activities. Gold and gravel mining, flow regulation and irrigation diversion have drastically affected salmonid populations on the lower Merced River.

Rocko Brown is an engineering geomorphologist with Environmental Science Associates, Phillip Williams & Associates. He acted as lead engineer of the project.

“We didn’t need to just reconfigure the flow of water,” he said. “We needed to redesign the lay of the land for improved use.”

Huge piles of gravel were excavated, screened and sorted on site to meet spawning requirements. The gravel was then placed in the river channel to create new features. Gravel bars, islands, a side channel and a floodplain were constructed.

Raising the river bottom in certain areas has increased the velocity of water flow. This keeps predatory animals away and eliminates the chance for vegetation to become root-bound.

Given a five-year time frame, project goals were completed in four years.

“It was so pleasant to work on this project and with the community,” Michelle Workman said. “The support we received moved things along, and we can already see that salmon are using the habitat.”

Workman is president of the Anadromous Fish Restoration Program with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Jesse Anderson, lead fisheries biologist with Cramer Fish Sciences, stated, “Usually salmon wait a year to let new gravel season. But the fact that they’re already spawning shows how few spawning areas have been available to them.”

The total numbers of adult fish returning to the Merced River for spawning vary from year to year. It is hoped the restoration project will continue to encourage spawning.

More than 50 stakeholders, plus approximately 20 technical advisory participants representing numerous agencies, are involved in the Merced River Corridor Restoration Plan. The MRR project is just one piece of the larger picture.

Some of the agencies collaborating in the project were: Merced County, California Department of Fish and Wildlife, Snelling Municipal Advisory Council, Modesto Irrigation District, the local flood board, Department of Water Resources, National Marine Fisheries Services and Stillwater Sciences.

Snelling schoolchildren and teachers also found ways to become involved by visiting the construction site and planting trees.

Biological monitoring began in 2011 and will continue for several years to review the effects of the enhanced gravel placement upon the river habitat.

Similar projects are being constructed on other rivers statewide and around the world.