Before Californians built a network of levees and dams to keep cities from flooding, the rivers that formed the Central Valley each winter would spill out of their channels. In the wettest years, they’d flood to form a massive inland sea that stretched hundreds of miles from Redding to Bakersfield.
In wet winters such as this one, those rivers keep trying to form that massive seasonal wetland again, testing the strength of the levees that protect communities built on the state’s floodplains.
Along two of the state’s most flood-prone rivers, Ducks Unlimited has been working to create wetlands that use those natural flood patterns to create vital habitat for waterbirds and wildlife. The projects highlight why Californians should look to wetland expansion as one of the solutions to help reduce the risks from future floods.
In Merced County along the San Joaquin River, Ducks Unlimited worked with U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Frito-Lay to restore and re-engineer 2,000 acres of wetlands in the heart of the Grasslands Ecological Area that mimic the historic function of the floodplain.
Completed earlier this year, the restored wetlands at San Luis National Wildlife Refuge’s East Bear Creek Unit provide habitat for waterfowl and other wildlife, while also serving as a place for floodwaters to go when the San Joaquin River and its tributaries are roaring.
The wetlands hold back around 2,500 acre feet of water that would otherwise head downstream toward San Joaquin Valley communities such as Manteca as well as communities such as Tracy in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. An acre foot is 325,851 gallons.
Ducks Unlimited regional biologist Matt Kaminski likened wetlands to sponges that soak up water before it has a chance to buckle downstream levees.
“It’s really a huge ripple effect,” Kaminski said. “The more wetlands you have, it puts less and less strain on the levees. And it’s providing great habitat for ducks and other wildlife.”
On the Cosumnes River, downstream of the tragic flooding on Highway 99 south of Sacramento, Ducks Unlimited oversaw design and permitting on another wetland project that helps sponge up floodwaters.
The 154-acre Cougar Wetland Project on the Cosumnes River Preserve shunts floodwaters from the Cosumnes River onto a restored wetland, which is designed take early flood waters off the river and onto the floodplain, where it’s beneficial for fish and waterfowl.
Partners on the Cougar Wetland Project included Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, California Department of Fish and Wildlife, Sacramento County, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and Regional Water Authority.
Ducks Unlimited is working with U.S. Fish and Wildlife and the Sacramento San Joaquin Delta Conservancy to design and permit a similar 163-acre wetland restoration and enhancement project on the Stone Lakes National Wildlife Refuge near Elk Grove.
When completed, the project will eventually be able to take on 51.6 million gallons of stormwater, while providing habitat for birds and other wildlife.
And on The Haire Ranch Enhancement Project on the north San Francisco Bay Estuary, Ducks Unlimited has been working to restore 726 acres of seasonal and tidal wetlands. The SF Bay provides critical habitat in times of drought. The high intensity atmospheric rivers and widespread flooding have filled the Haire Ranch unit and it is providing great duck habitat. Partners on the ongoing restoration project include U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Natural Resources Conservation Services, Joseph and Vera Long Foundation, Phillips 66, San Francisco Bay Restoration Authority.
Ducks Unlimited works with private landowners, corporations, other nonprofits and government agencies to enhance, restore and protect wetlands across the country.
In California, 95% of the state’s historic wetlands have been plowed or paved over. Since its founding in 1937, Ducks Unlimited has overseen 1,300 projects that have conserved more than 719,000 acres of wetlands in California.