State of the Sac

Weekend conference planned to address the health of the Sacramento River

MATTER OF TRUST John Merz, chair of the board of directors of the Sacramento River Preservation Trust, hopes the upcoming Red Bluff conference on the state of the river will attract members of the private as well as the public sector.

MATTER OF TRUST John Merz, chair of the board of directors of the Sacramento River Preservation Trust, hopes the upcoming Red Bluff conference on the state of the river will attract members of the private as well as the public sector.

photo by Tom Angel

Watchin’ the river flow: The Red Bluff conference will be preceded by workshops on Thurs., Nov. 15, and Fri., Nov. 16. For more information call the Sacramento River Preservation Trust at 345-1865.

Viewed from an airplane flying above southern Tehama and northern Butte counties, the Sacramento River looks like giant serpent slithering its way south toward Sacramento and its eventual destination at the San Francisco Bay.

The notion of the river as a moving, living being is not necessarily a flight of poetic imagination. If one were somehow able to film the river from this vantage point over a period, say, of a year or two and then time-lapse that footage into two hours, the viewer would see the snake-like undulations of the river as it meanders back and forth over time within its flood plain.

Unfortunately, the river’s insistence on this meandering has helped lead, indirectly, to the degradation of the once-abundant riparian habitat that thrives along its banks.

Beginning Saturday, Nov. 17, the river will be the subject of a two-day conference in Red Bluff that will examine the state of the river and look at ways to improve its health through various means. Not the least of them is gaining the ear of state and federal representatives to see that preservation and restoration plans are properly funded via the Cal-Fed program, the ambitious and far-reaching state and federal plans to fix California’s ever-expanding water woes.

Human development and short-sighted bank-protection practices have helped reduce the riparian habitat along the river to something less than 2 percent of its original size, reports the Sacramento River Preservation Trust (SRPT).

The largest river in the state, the Sacramento provides recreation for millions of people each year and generates millions of dollars for the state economy, including more than $30 million annually from salmon fishing.

But that rich resource, which supplies 90 percent of all salmon caught between San Francisco and Monterey and an estimated 40 percent of those caught along the North Coast, is threatened, as are a number of plants and other animals that depend on the Sacramento River system for survival.

Now a consortium of conservationists, recreationists and government agencies is looking at ways to preserve the habitat that is left along the river. They also want to restore what has been lost through years of trying to manage the mighty waterway by reinforcing its banks with boulders (rip-rap) to anchor the streambed in place, which in turn causes the riparian habitat to disappear.

Their alternative is to allow the river to act in a more natural way by providing it with a so-called “meander belt” of cushioning acreage.

Not everyone agrees, however, that returning the river to a more natural state is such a great idea. Farmers who plow, plant and grow right up to the river’s edge do not want to unleash its meandering, for to do so threatens to erode their profitable acreage.

Sue Sutton, president of the Family Water Alliance, a nonprofit, private-property-rights advocacy group based in Maxwell, has written in this paper that allowing the river to move as it pleases will erode valuable farm lands, remove land from the tax rolls in cash-strapped counties, and endanger landowners who could stand to lose homes and farm buildings if levees are set back to encourage riparian growth.

“The value of crop production lost from conversion of ag land to setback levees and habitat is an annual loss, in perpetuity,” Sutton wrote on these pages in July. “Imagine the forced condemnation of your home and farm buildings to benefit some species such as the Sacramento split tail!”

Conservationists like John Merz, chair of the board of directors for the SRPT, say such views are short sighted and that it is time to rethink how we live with rivers and interact with nature.

“There are certain individuals within the agricultural community who seem to have a problem with the river’s being a river,” Merz said. “Look what’s happened to the habitat along the river. All but 2 to 5 percent, not just along the Sacramento but along its tributaries as well, is gone. This is our rain forest.”

As for the question of protection of threatened species like the Sacramento split tail, Merz sighs and answers as if he’s explained it once too often.

“If you don’t understand that we’re part of this web of life, then we’re living on two different planets. I mean, this is Biology 101, and we are biological beings. We are a species.”

That’s a large part of the reason why, during the weekend of Nov. 17 and 18, the SRPT will hold its “State of the Sacramento River Conference” at the Red Bluff Community Center to address the many problems the river is facing.

“This is a key opportunity for the general public to really find out what’s going on with the river, who’s doing what,” Merz said.

“The Cal-Fed record of decision has been certified,” he explained. “Now we are watching for the actual implementation of that because we are still not sure if the federal money will be there.

“Phase I [of Cal-Fed] will take seven years and cost $2 to $3 billion, of which 75 percent is federal funds,” Merz said. “The question is, will Congress step up to the plate, first just to authorize it, and then they will they appropriate it?”

In the conference brochure is a greeting from Merz in which he quotes Jim Mayer, the closing keynote speaker of the last river conference, which was held in 1998. Mayer noted in that speech three years ago that efforts to save the Sacramento must compete with other issues for both “public resources and public pathos.”

In the days following Sept. 11, that competition may be stiffer than ever.