Soapbox

The flood management revolution in California you’ve never heard of

The Tuolumne River runs through Dos Rios Ranch, a 1,600 acre property being restored to riparian habitat, looking toward the San Joaquin River National Wildlife Refuge, taken near Modesto, Calif. on Jan. 25, 2014.
The Tuolumne River runs through Dos Rios Ranch, a 1,600 acre property being restored to riparian habitat, looking toward the San Joaquin River National Wildlife Refuge, taken near Modesto, Calif. on Jan. 25, 2014. naustin@modbee.com

California’s rivers have bestowed many gifts – water, abundant agriculture, transportation, recreation and wildlife – and have shaped our history.

But we haven’t always treated our rivers well in return. In the first 150 years of statehood, Californians built thousands of miles of levees that eliminated natural floodplains and reduced Central Valley wetlands by 95 percent.

 
Opinion

Only today are we starting to learn how to coexist with healthy rivers – even more crucial with a warming climate increasing flood flows. Scientists warned recently of a repeat of the disastrous 1861 flood that required Gov. Leland Stanford to reach his Sacramento inauguration by rowboat. The safety of our communities requires new ways to reduce flood risk.

Fortunately over the past 20 years, creative partnerships have worked with nature, restoring floodplains that reduce flood risk and provide new habitat for birds, fish, mammals and reptiles. In a state famous for fighting over water, we’ve learned that restoring rivers and floodplains is good for all Californians.

The proof of this approach can be found at the Dos Rios project on the San Joaquin River. A series of strategic levee breaches allow a restored floodplain to absorb flood waters, reducing risks to farms and communities downstream, including Stockton. This summer, crews are planting new habitat at Dos Rios as part of the state’s largest riparian restoration project.

These “multi-benefit” projects also provide open space to Central Valley residents who have far less access to parks than other Californians. They also capture carbon, recharge groundwater and improve water quality. These broad benefits attract support from farmers, fishermen, hunters, environmentalists, flood control agencies, local governments and others.

Ironically, this broad support also explains why Californians don’t always hear about these projects. Nevertheless, recent progress is impressive.

Last year, the state adopted a new Central Valley Flood Protection Plan, making these restorations the cornerstone strategy to protect communities and farms. In June, voters approved Proposition 68, which will fund more than $300 million of new multi-benefit projects. And the state Department of Water Resources recently restructured its leadership to focus more on these projects.

But most importantly, the number, size and ambition of multi-benefit projects are expanding. It will take decades to restore rivers to health and protect communities from flooding increased by climate change. Nevertheless, California is emerging as a world leader in this new approach to help make our state green, prosperous and safe.

John Carlon is co-founder and president of River Partners, a nonprofit conservation group based in Chico. He can be contacted at jcarlon@riverpartners.org.

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