Dos Rios Ranch: A Landscape-scale Model for Multi-benefit Riparian Restoration

Summer 2014 Ecesis, Volume 24, Issue 2

The Multi-benefit Framework

Riparian restoration at Dos Rios Ranch also provides sustained employment opportunities for area youth, such as members of the California Conservation Corps who assist with weed control, plant native species, and receive training on restoration methods.

Riparian restoration at Dos Rios Ranch also provides sustained employment opportunities for area youth, such as members of the California Conservation Corps who assist with weed control, plant native species, and receive training on restoration methods.

Throughout California’s history, flood protection and water supply have been major focuses of public investment. The common approach has been to engineer complex systems that have altered river systems in order to increase public safety and meet the water supply needs of municipalities, agriculture, and other industries — often to the detriment of natural ecosystems and native species. Over the past several decades, a shift in public values has elevated the priority of natural communities and the broader environment, resulting in the creation of State and federal habitat reserves and also the requirement that environmental impacts associated with water infrastructure projects be offset through mitigation. Such mitigation projects, however, are often narrowly focused on a single species of concern and may be implemented independent of the location of environmental impacts.

Multi-benefit projects offer a complementary alternative to mitigation and habitat reserves, especially in the context of water management and flood risk reduction. Multi-benefit flood protection and water supply projects consider existing geomorphic processes, enhancement and restoration of native vegetation, and where relevant and possible, the restoration of river processes to benefit both people and the environment. The multi-benefit framework has been formally defined in key planning efforts such as the Central Valley Flood Protection Plan (CVFPP). In the CVFPP’s Conservation Strategy, multi-benefit projects are defined as those designed and implemented to achieve the objectives of both flood safety and ecosystem functions, while providing additional benefits as much as possible. Agencies, natural resource managers, and conservation stakeholders are now shifting towards collaborative, multi-benefit integrated water management strategies to meet multiple and often simultaneous objectives including:

  • Minimizing risks to human life, health, and safety from flooding;
  • Restoring natural processes and habitat to benefit native species, especially species of concern;
  • Linking flood protection and water-supply systems;
  • Improving water quality and the reliability of water delivery;
  • Enhancing agricultural practices in order to benefit species and complement the restoration of processes and habitats in adjacent river reaches;
  • Seeking opportunities and incentives for expanding floodway corridors; and
  • Creating opportunities for recreation and employment.

For example, the CVFPP takes a new approach to flood protection, requiring agencies to consider both structural elements (e.g., levees and bypasses) and nonstructural elements (e.g., riparian restoration and floodplain reconnection) when implementing projects to minimize flood risk and enhance water supply reliability. Emerging from this approach are numerous potential public benefits, including improvements to river conditions and functions that will support habitat restoration efforts benefiting native species, opportunities for recreation and employment, carbon sequestration via planting of native woody species, and enhanced landscape resilience to climate change through optimal selection of restoration sites. 

Multi-benefit restoration planning is part of a suite of emerging concepts that represent the “state of the art” for restoration ecology and ecological restoration. These include targeted restoration strategies for optimal site selection, economic analyses of restoration costs and ecosystem service benefits, and recognition of the role of restoration in enhancing ecosystem resilience to climate change. 

Dos Rios Ranch Ecosystem Improvement and Flood Management Project

Dos Rios Ranch is located at the confluence of the Tuolumne and San Joaquin Rivers in Stanislaus County, adjacent to the ~8,000 ac. San Joaquin River National Wildlife Refuge. Since the project’s inception, Dos Rios Ranch has been collaboratively planned as a landscape-scale model for multi-benefit riparian restoration. After years of building partnerships and marshalling support, the 1,603-acre Dos Rios Ranch was acquired by River Partners with assistance from the nonprofit Tuolumne River Trust and seven key funders: the USDA Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS), the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation (BOR), the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), the California Department of Water Resources (DWR), the California Natural Resource Agency (CNRA), the California Wildlife Conservation Board (WCB), and the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission (SFPUC). In 2013, through generous funding from DWR and WCB, River Partners initiated a successful effort to purchase Hidden Valley Ranch, an additional 497 contiguous acres of farm and dairy land south of Dos Rios Ranch. Additional partners facilitating the second purchase included American Rivers, the Natural Heritage Institute, the Tuolumne River Trust, and the Natural Resource Defense Council.

In combination, Dos Rios and Hidden Valley Ranches form a 2,100-acre project on which restoration efforts have already begun, and which will continue in phases depending on the availability of funding and other factors. Restoration efforts at Dos Rios and Hidden Valley Ranches complement past and present habitat restoration and enhancement efforts at the San Joaquin River NWR. Since 2003, over 2,500 acres of floodplain lands at the Refuge have been restored to native habitat designed to support endangered species, and hundreds of additional acres of remnant habitat have been enhanced through weed removal and native grass seeding.

In combination, Dos Rios Ranch, Hidden Valley Ranch, and the adjacent San Joaquin River NWR have been called the “quintessential multi-benefit project of the CVFPP in the San Joaquin Valley” and have been identified as a potential project in the San Joaquin Basin Feasibility Study, the Mid-San Joaquin Regional Flood Management Plan, and the CVFPP Conservation Strategy. There are unique opportunities at these locations to achieve flood-risk reduction benefits while also storing carbon, improving water supply reliability, increasing regional resilience to climate change, and restoring river processes and habitat for a diverse range of species. 

Planning for Multiple Benefits

In the past, systemwide and multi-benefit approaches to flood risk management have not been widely applied. Despite the potential efficiency and effectiveness of prioritizing flood risk management projects from a systemwide or multi-benefit perspective, State and federal funding has traditionally been provided to narrow-benefit, local projects. However, DWR’s commitment to Integrated Water Management and the related integrated flood management approach of the CVFPP, along with broader public awareness and concern, have helped to shift the planning and funding focus of flood-risk management to put higher priority on projects with systemwide and multiple benefits. This approach will increase environmental stewardship and promote ecosystem functions, in conjunction with more effective and cost-efficient flood-risk reduction. The Conservation Strategy being developed in support of the CVFPP provides specific environmental objectives and guidance on how to efficiently integrate ecological restoration within flood-risk management actions in order to improve ecosystems through multi-benefit projects.

Other agencies have adopted similar approaches; for example, NRCS-targeted conservation program initiatives focus financial and technical assistance to broad project areas established through partnership agreements. Conservation easement site selection emphasizes plans with multi-benefit results including riparian restoration, floodplain protection, conservation of surface and ground water, and improvement in water quality.

At Dos Rios Ranch, planning for the provision of multiple benefits has been a thoughtful, collaborative process involving a multitude of funders, nonprofit and community partners, academic researchers, private-sector consultants, and River Partners staff. Design considerations have included consideration of land-use history, pre-restoration site assessments, hydraulic modeling of river dynamics and estimates of flood risk reduction, habitat mosaics for a suite of species of concern, opportunities for volunteer activities and job creation, and consideration of neighboring properties including the San Joaquin River NWR and privately-owned farms.

Implementation and Progress-to-date

Phase 1 of restoration efforts was focused on fields located land-side of the federal levee and was further divided into two sub-phases. 198 acres of wetlands, floodplains, and uplands were prepped from 2012-2013 and planted in Spring 2013. Funders contributing to planting and maintenance include the NRCS, DWR, BOR, and the USFWS Central Valley Project Improvement Act Habitat Restoration Program. Approximately 40,000 native woody plants were planted, including trees such as cottonwood, willows, and valley oaks, and shrubs including golden current, California wild rose, and California blackberry. Five acres of high-ground flood refugia for wildlife, such as the endangered riparian brush rabbit, were also constructed. In the Fall of 2014, a diverse native understory will be planted for habitat enhancement and weed control.

An additional 401 acres were prepped in Fall 2013 and planted with approximately 100,000 additional native trees and shrubs from Nov. 2013 to Apr. 2014. Also constructed were fifteen acres of high-ground flood refugia and five acres of swales designed to provide wetland habitat values and eventual river-floodplain reconnection. Funders contributing to this effort include NRCS, DWR, and WCB. Maintenance (e.g., weed control) of planted fields has provided opportunities to employ dozens of area youths as members of the California Conservation Corp. Tuolumne River Trust has also been assisting with coordination of volunteer activities involving students and community members.

On the Dos Rios Ranch property, future restoration phases will focus on the ~850 acres water-side of the federal levee and the ~150 acres of high ground near the property entrance. Plans include establishing diverse habitat patches of riparian forests, oak woodlands, and flexible-stemmed shrubs, all enhanced by native understory species. A network of additional high-ground refugia and herbaceous swales will also be constructed, drawing upon our experience with similar features at the San Joaquin River NWR and during earlier restoration phases at Dos Rios Ranch. Options will also be explored for breaching the federal levee to increase floodplain reconnection and flood attenuation, and for providing habitat for juvenile endangered salmon. Restoration planning will also begin for the 497-acre Hidden Valley Ranch property, and will complement and enhance past restoration efforts at the San Joaquin River NWR and present restoration efforts described above at Dos Rios Ranch. A portion of the Hidden Valley Ranch property will also provide advance mitigation for improvements to the State Plan of Flood Control Facilities. 

Lessons for Multi-benefit Restoration: The Power of Partnerships

Given the complexities of balancing numerous perspectives and objectives in funding and implementing multi-benefit projects, partnerships between stakeholders and organizations are critical at all project stages. Partnerships open new avenues for funding, provide diverse perspectives during project planning, and are essential during project implementation, evaluation, and outreach. Partnerships can also facilitate comprehensive, science-based restoration planning to determine the best uses of a proposed multi-benefit project site and to resolve the multitude of questions that have to be addressed. What benefits can the site provide and at what cost? How does planning for certain benefits, such as flood storage, affect the provision of other benefits, like restoration of river processes and native habitat? How does multi-benefit planning affect long-term operations and maintenance costs? What will be the effects of climate change, drought, and other perturbations on restoration outcomes? Project partners will all have specific areas of expertise (e.g., restoration implementation, hydraulic modeling, and volunteer coordination) that can be leveraged to conduct comprehensive planning that will ensure successful provision of multiple benefits over the life of the project and beyond. — by Andrew Rayburn (Restoration Ecologist, River), Julie Rentner (Director of Special Projects, River Partners), Jeff Holt (Restoration Biologist, River Partners), Terri Gaines (Program Manager, Department of Water Resources), Ronald Melcer (Staff Environmental Scientist, Department of Water Resources), Alan Forkey (Assistant State Conservationist, USDA Natural Resource Conservation Service)