Waterway windfall

Chico-based River Partners recognized for restoring California’s riparian habitats

LET IT FLOW<br>Ecologist Tom Griggs (above) stands next to the Bear River, where River Partners has restored 600 acres of degraded farmland.

Ecologist Tom Griggs (above) stands next to the Bear River, where River Partners has restored 600 acres of degraded farmland.

Photo By Toni Scott

Partner Projects
River Partners has restored habitat from Redding to south of Modesto. Pictured here are project sites in the North Valley.What they’re up to:For more information about River Partners and projects on five major California rivers, visit www.riverpartners.org.

A cool breeze rustles through the vibrant green leaves of a cottonwood sapling. Branches stretch out from behind the cardboard milk carton that protects the vulnerable young tree, standing just a few feet tall. As the morning sun begins to shine on the seedling and 100,000 plants that surround it, songbirds bob through the clear blue sky, chirping to each other as they soar above the green vegetation. Nearby, the Bear River flows serenely through the landscape.

It’s hard to imagine that just over a year ago, this land—600 acres south of Marysville—was a barren stretch of earth, devoid of any life.

“It certainly is beautiful out here,” observes Tom Griggs, who had no small hand in the transformation of the property.

Working for River Partners, a nonprofit corporation responsible for restoring riparian habitat throughout Northern and Central California, Griggs helps bring sites like this one back to their natural state. Now flourishing with greenery, this particular property was once a walnut orchard, beaten down by the floodwaters of Bear River. The farmer who worked the land removed the trees, leaving it vulnerable to rushing river waters.

Currently, the property is managed by Three Rivers Levee Improvement Authority. The company is working to improve the levee on the property and reduce potential damage from floodwaters.

“Ecological flooding is a good thing,” said Griggs, a senior restoration ecologist. “But the amount of flooding along many of our rivers is not natural.”

Griggs says the flooding along California rivers has changed, in large part due to human interference. Dams and reshaping of a river’s natural course contribute to an unstable flood plain, putting not only the environment in danger, but the public as well.

Seeking to change this phenomenon, River Partners has emerged as a dynamic force in bringing an innovative approach to solving the issue of flood-prone land. For them the solution is simple: bring back the plants that naturally prospered in an area to create a buffer to impede the river waters.

WILD THINGS GROW<br>John Carlon, co-founder and president of River Partners, walks through newly planted vegetation that has brought back wildlife to this stretch of land between the Bear River and a protective levee.

Photo By Toni Scott

“We go onto a site and design a plan that accommodates the area. We plant trees, shrubs, all sorts of vegetation, and create a buffer along the bank of a river,” said Griggs.

The restoration work has an added effect of attracting wildlife to the properties.

“Birds will come back and begin to make their nests, rodents will begin to make their homes in the grass,” Griggs said. “You can find a variety of wildlife where you wouldn’t have before.”

In recognition of this restoration of riparian habitat, Griggs and River Partners president John Carlon last month received the 2007 James Irvine Foundation Leadership Award, a prize of $125,000. The foundation, in commending organizations that approach some of the state’s biggest challenges with innovative solutions, chose the Chico-based corporation for its efforts to reduce flood risks.

Griggs says the organization will put the award money toward outreach and development purposes. “We would like to be better known by the public and have them especially aware that riparian habitat is important to everyone,” he said.

Writing that “public officials would do well to learn from the experiences of River Partners,” the Irvine Foundation highlighted the men’s exemplary work in a press release announcing their achievement, along with recipients from four other organizations in the state. The corporation has responded to the awareness created in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina by focusing attention on California’s deteriorating levees at sites that are considered highly vulnerable, the foundation said.

River Partners was also recognized for “forging unlikely alliances among farmers, conservationists and government agencies.”

Indeed, the collaboration among these people and entities is unlikely. But Carlon says it is integral to the work of River Partners. A blueberry farmer by trade, Carlon himself is a dichotomy of sorts. But he says the welding together of agriculture and ecological viewpoints emphasizes his understanding of a particular land’s needs.

“It’s about community,” Carlon said. “We all live and work here and value the North State.”

Courtesy Of River Partners

Since starting the company in 1998, Carlon has seen the benefits River Partners provides for the environment and farmers alike. The idea for the corporation emerged from a need to protect co-founder Barney Flynn’s family farm in Gerber.

With a levee facing erosion by the Sacramento River, the longtime friends put their heads together to devise a plan to return the area back to its natural state. Planting vegetation that would protect the orchard from floodwaters, Carlon and Flynn created a buffer between the levee and the river.

Their method was effective and revolutionary in the way riparian habitat was conserved and maintained. Recognizing this, the two set out to change the way farmers and environmentalists thought about flood control. Nearly 10 years later, River Partners boasts staff in two offices: its main branch in Chico and one in Modesto. Working along the Sacramento, San Joaquin, Merced, Tuolumne, Feather and Stanislaus rivers, the nonprofit combines traditional farming practices with riparian restoration.

“I approach the land just as a farmer does,” Griggs said. “I think, ‘What will do well here; what will prosper?’ What we do and what they do is not that different.”

Priding itself on working on large-scale projects, River Partners doesn’t do much work for private parties. The company buys and restores some sites, which are eventually turned over to a public agency. Recently, River Partners donated a 20-acre parcel to California State Parks at Gianella Landing, just east of Hamilton City. Other work sites are already owned by state entities that contract the work the corporation provides.

In the process, River Partners has forged partnerships not only with farmers and key community members around the North State, but also with the California Department of Fish and Game, Ducks Unlimited and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

River Partners’ board includes several notable names from the Chico area, including Sierra Nevada Brewing Co.'s Ken Grossman, who says he stands behind the corporation and its valuable work.

“They are remarkable,” Grossman said. “They have been able to take marginal farmlands and restore them back to their natural state.”

Still, Carlon says at the end of the day it’s about the people, not just the land.

“We can take a place and see the plants grow and wildlife come,” he said. “But when we improve it to resist flood waters, it’s about public safety as well.”