Our third river

Alive in all seasons, the Yolo Bypass is a mystery to most area residents. But make no mistake: Without it, Sacramento would have gone underwater years ago.

Photo By dave feliz

The headquarters of the Yolo Bypass Wildlife Area is well outside the Yolo Bypass itself. About a mile and a half west, it sits on a slightly raised pad off Chiles Road in east Davis. Inside, there’s a conference room and a small display of stuffed birds donated by local patrons wanting to get them out of the house. Across the hall is the wildlife area manager’s office, the Department of Fish and Game’s working presence here.

The floor of the office is clear, though nearly every other surface is piled high with paper. Fisheries reports, newsletters, habitat distribution maps and reams of files are stacked on a pair of filing cabinets and on a worn plank table pushed against the wall. It’s an organizational practice that suggests a long familiarity with rising water.

“The natural history and cultural history of this place,” Dave Feliz says, “revolves around flooding.”

Feliz was manager of the wildlife area for 13 years—from a year after its opening until June of this year—and he knows a flood when he sees one. Even a cursory review of Sacramento’s past would back him up: Leland Stanford rowing from his mansion on P Street to the Capitol for his inauguration; R.S. Carey looking out at his latest crop of ruined wheat and putting a gun to his head; Sacramento rebuilding on the drowned corpse of itself. Long-time residents rattle off flood years like football plays—1956, 1964, 1986, 1997—each number calling up a newsreel of water rising and spreading, land going under.

Out the office’s east-facing window, the natural history side is illustrated by vees of ducks and geese circling near the Yolo Bypass’ western levee. Right now, only a few pockets of water dot the fields out there, but come November it will likely be a different story.

About one out of every three years, water fills the bypass, stretching for 43 miles from Knight’s Landing to Rio Vista. In those years, the bypass becomes a giant relief valve for the Sacramento River, diverting huge volumes of water around Sacramento to the Delta. The winter of 2010-2011 was one of those years. Driving across Interstate 80, you would have seen a flat sheet of water rolling out of sight in both directions beneath the Yolo Causeway. Depending on where you were from, the view might have recalled the Boundary Waters of Minnesota, Lake Pontchartrain or the Mekong Delta.

Driving back in the spring or summer, after the water had receded, you would have found it improbable that the placid farmland you were looking at was the same place. There would be signs of the vanished water if you looked closely—webs of matted debris tangled in the willow branches, a fine layer of silt covering the River Road—but the huge lake you couldn’t find on the map would be gone. In its place would be tidy fields of rice and corn, and picturesque ponds dabbed with waterfowl.

The bypass—this schizophrenic depression scoured out of a onetime swamp—is a lesson in opposites, an embodiment of the longstanding forces that have shaped the area: The natural cycles of flooding and draining, and the dueling human currents of hubris and humility.

Robin Kulakow (left) and Dave Feliz beside one of the large manmade ponds in the Yolo Bypass Wildlife Area.

Photo By dave feliz

The bypass begins about 15 miles north at Fremont Weir, an unassuming low spot in the river’s 300-mile long wall, just downstream from Knight’s Landing. The levee height at the weir is 33.5 feet, almost 12 feet lower than the levee on either side. When the river rises to this level—referred to as the “monitoring stage”—water begins leaving the main river channel and flowing into the bypass. Gently at first, it quickly turns into a torrent, submerging the grass and star thistle and churning south toward the Delta.

It takes a day or so for the water coming over the top of Fremont Weir to reach this section of the bypass. Once it does, the land begins disappearing like the floor of a tilted bathtub, the water spreading south and west. Soon only the island of cottonwoods and alders surrounding Green’s lake are visible. One of the few permanent landmarks within the bypass, Green’s Lake is probably not named for Will Green, but it should be.

Green was the editor of the Colusa Sun and a rarity in his day, a sensible Californian. He was also something of a prophet. He watched the river flood nearly every year, and he watched where the water went.

Feliz taps a large watershed map five times, each tap indicating one of the major basins that drain the vast bowl of the upper valley. The five basins appear on the map like the splayed fingers of a hand laid flat across the Sacramento and its tributaries:

The Butte and Sutter basins lie between the Feather and Sacramento rivers to the north, split by the cragged spine of the Sutter Buttes. Across the river, on the Sacramento’s west bank, the Colusa Basin funnels the surges of water from the east side of the coast range down to the flats. The American Basin hunkers to the northeast, encompassing the major watersheds of the Yuba, Bear and American rivers.

The bypass is formed by the fifth of these basins, the Yolo Basin. At some point, the water from each of the other four ends up either in the river or here.

From his office in Colusa, Green saw how the basins siphoned off the overflow in the wettest years, and he recognized in them a ready-made flood-control system far superior to the levees being thrown up downstream. Green made his case through years of a frantically futile cycle of levee building and overtopping, but hardly anyone listened. It wasn’t until 12 years after his death that his message finally got through.

The Sacramento Flood Control Project, adopted in 1917, was the first real comprehensive plan for managing the waters of the Sacramento. It filled in the gaps in the existing hodgepodge of levees and added a series of weirs to the mix. The weirs diverted water into and out of the river, and tied the basins together in a sort of supplementary river that routed the overflow around Sacramento and into the newly christened Yolo Bypass, sextupling flood tolerance. On its own, the river could carry about 100,000 cubic feet per second at flood stage. The bypass can move 500,000 cubic feet per second without breaking a sweat.

Cars cross the Yolo Causeway above the flooded Yolo Bypass.

Photo By dave feliz

“In our minds,” Feliz says, “flood control is the most important use for this property. That’s the only way we stay in business.”

Feliz phrases his thoughts carefully, and delivers them in an even voice pitched to avoid spooking wildlife or people. He’s something of an itinerant biologist, driven by curiosity and bureaucracy from one wild place to the next, from Grizzly Island to the bypass to Elkhorn Slough estuary. Through it all his office has changed locations, the floor plan has varied superficially, but it has never been more than a necessary evil—a base from which to make phone calls and file reports. He jumps at the chance to go outside.

We climb into his truck, a mud-spattered workhorse that emits an uneasy whine he tries to locate, unsuccessfully, throughout the morning. At the top of the levee, just inside the wildlife area gate, he stops and points across to where a flock of snow geese are passing over the causeway.

“You’ve got all these birds moving north,” he says, “and here’s this highway that goes across the country, with all these people moving east-west. It’s like this crossroads.”

The traffic on Interstate 80 is brisk, and mostly oblivious of the avian road. The two intersect only sporadically, testified to by the occasional clump of feathers fluttering in the breakdown lane. Few drivers look up in their migration. If they did, they’d see an impressive variety of birds floating overhead, bobbing in the updrafts from their cars.

In addition to the regular visitors—snow geese, sandhill cranes, buffleheads—more exotic species sometimes find their way into the bypass. According to Feliz, as masses of birds comingle across the Arctic in the summer months, strays from other migratory routes—such as the Black Sea or Mediterranean flyways—get mixed in with the Pacific group and are carried along with them as they move south. Looking down expecting to see Kiev, they suddenly find themselves in California.

Feliz stops often to prop his binoculars on the window frame. He keeps a running unofficial census in his head, comparing the current population to that of previous years. At one of the permanent ponds, he gets out and scans the carpet of bobbing birds. Robin Kulakow joins him at the edge of the pond and they compare notes.

Kulakow is the executive director of the Yolo Basin Foundation, a grassroots organization founded in 1989 around her Davis kitchen table. The foundation grew out of the seedbed of the Putah Creek Council, a coalition formed a year earlier to keep Putah Creek from running dry. The once volatile creek—which in its unregulated days habitually flooded thousands of acres of farmland—had been reduced to a trickle by water controls upstream. The council sued and successfully negotiated an agreement with the Solano County Water Agency to release more water upstream and restore flows in the creek.

Returned to something like its former glory, Putah Creek again reached into the bypass, tailing out in its historical end ground, the Putah Sink. Looking north from there, the view opened to a bird-lover’s Shangri-la. Kulakow saw the possibilities immediately.

She harnessed her experiences from her council days and initiated the negotiations between multiple interests that would eventually lead to the wildlife area. She was a quietly powerful advocate, pressing the community’s case for a protected space within the flood zone, a working sanctuary that would also serve as a biological classroom for busloads of visiting school kids. Unassuming and soft-spoken, she somehow managed to get a roomful of single-minded men—farmers, flood-control people, mosquito wranglers and water resources agents—to agree. It was a hard-won victory and a testament, above all, to mutual civility.

Kulakow smiles often as we cross the top edge of the wildlife area. Sitting in the backseat, her head pivoting to follow a kestrel’s flight path, she is clearly as pleased as Feliz to be out here.

Each spring, a fleet of heavy equipment transforms sections of the bypass into bird-ready wetlands habitat.

Photo By dave feliz

A small flock of pintails circles over a pond about 50 yards off, just out of shotgun range. Closer in, coots splash along the edge of the tules. As we cross a culvert beside a beaver lodge, Feliz lights up at the sight of a convoy of mowers and excavators. The ground is just dry enough to hold them without sinking.

The machines will mow the already knee-high weeds and clear debris brought in by the water. Some of the ground they’ll grade and flood for shorebird habitat. Shorebirds are a distinct subset of the migration, with their own requirements. Each bird’s peculiar feeding habits are adapted to water of a certain depth—the longer the legs, Feliz points out, the deeper the water. As it happens, rice farming demands the same precise control of water levels, a coincidence that has played a crucial role in the wildlife area’s success.

Rice needs a consistent water level of about 5 inches throughout its growing cycle, which calls for very flat land. The bypass is nearly flat, but not quite flat enough. This typical sloppiness on nature’s part is corrected by dividing the land into smaller, flatter sections using low dirt levees.

The rice levees correspond to topographic contour lines, with the slight slope between them providing drainage. Boxes are cut into the levees and fitted with wooden slats that can be removed as needed to let the water through, tying the fields together in a subtle ladder of water flow.

You can see the levees as you pass over on the causeway, snaking in seemingly random paths across the floor of the bypass. Not everyone would have seen in this drunken pattern the blueprint for wetlands restoration, but Feliz did.

“The same principles apply to rice farming and wetlands management,” he says. “So we use a lot of the same tools. The same water-management tools, the same soil-preparation tools.”

It was a perfect alignment of interests. Who could object?

Mike DeWit, for one. DeWit is a hereditary rice farmer with the ropy arms of a pitcher and the casual skepticism of farmers everywhere.

White pelicans consult in the Yolo Bypass Wildlife Area.

Photo By dave feliz

“I didn’t want to do it,” DeWit says. “I said, Dad, why do we want to grow weeds?”

DeWit has followed his father, Jack DeWit, into the family business, and together they farm a checkerboard territory spread across three counties, about 3,500 acres of it within the bypass. Jack DeWit was one of the principals in the original wildlife-area working group, and both DeWits came on board with the plan early, even though almost everything about it went against their farmers’ instincts.

“Growing weeds, no spraying?” Mike DeWit says. “I thought it was crazy.”

Rice farming in the bypass has always been a risky proposition anyway. Late rains in the spring and early rains in the fall can all reduce or kill a crop, and the Delta breeze sweeping up the bottomland can make for stunted growth.

One alternative is to grow wild rice, which is more tolerant of cold weather. Nearly half the rice grown below Interstate 80 is wild rice. But wild rice comes with its own risks.

“They’ve been growing rice in California since the early 1900s,” DeWit says. “So we’ve got high-yielding, short-season varieties, disease resistance, all these other factors that they’ve bred into these plants. But wild rice is just what it is. It’s wild. You get the roll of the dice.”

The wild rice grown today is genetically identical to the first wild strains brought down years ago from the upper Midwest and Canada, where it spent its winters on the floors of iced-over lakes. To mimic the environment here, the wild rice seeds are stored over the winter in a converted ice rink in Yuba City.

“We’re trying all sort of things now,” Feliz says. “But without a good working relationship between us and the farmers, you could never make that leap.”

DeWit nods in agreement. Things have worked out a little better than he’d expected. And he likes the soil in the bypass, even if the growing season’s a bit of a crapshoot.

“It’s good rice ground,” he says, “but you never know. That’s why you have crop insurance. You’d be crazy to farm the bypass without crop insurance.”

He studies the soggy ground like he’s gauging the holes in a batter’s swing, then he climbs in his truck and drives off toward his fields. Feliz turns right, following a scraper redrawing the half-visible skeleton of the dry season road network.

The Yolo Bypass serves as a giant relief valve for the Sacramento River, capable of carrying five times as much water as the river itself.

Photo By dave feliz

“Every time you come out here,” Kulakow says from the backseat, “it’s different.”

Meaning the weather, the light, the birds. The smells and sounds. It’s a world removed and nearly perfected. Kulakow takes it in as if it’s her first time out. She and Feliz identify birds, discuss water levels and ground conditions. They trade a pair of binoculars back and forth. They are proud of what they’ve accomplished, but show none of the covetousness you might expect.

“You start from the ground up,” Feliz says, “and find out what’s important to people. Then you incorporate those values into how the land will be managed.”

It’s a simple philosophy and, in this case at least, a successful one. The only risk is that people will look at what they’ve done and think it’s easy.

“There was no profit motive at all involved in this,” Kulakow says. “It was just the right thing to do.”

She steps out of the truck and watches a Swainson’s hawk skim low to the ground.

“Does that make sense?”

A wildlife tour watches the last of the sun from the levee above the Yolo Bypass Wildlife Area.

Photo By dave feliz

“Welcome to downtown Yolano,” Mike Hardesty says, standing just inside the low ranch house at the edge of the lower bypass that serves as the central office of Reclamation District 2068. The yard is a long rectangle of parti-colored gravel, separated from the nonexistent bustle of King Road by a decorative wrought iron fence. The only other address on King Road is the dusty house across the street that hunkers back in the trees like a kicked dog. Just past its driveway, a yellow line is painted across the road, “FINISH” scrawled in hand-lettered caps beneath it.

Yolano sits on the Dixon Ridge, a marginally raised area with just enough elevation to stay above the water spreading west from the bypass. There is no levee here marking the edge, as there is along most of the bypass boundary. The barrier is natural, an alluvial bank leading in a straight line through Dixon to the base of the Berryessa Notch.

In the wettest years, water comes close, but never over the ridge. Even in the days when Putah Creek went each winter from a trickle to a roar, this high ground stayed dry. It was an island, as many of the mostly vanished communities around here were—Tremont, Lisbon, Main Prairie—though Yolano’s of more recent vintage.

“I’m told by old-timers,” Hardesty says, “that nobody in their right mind would have lived out here.” It was a patch of dry ground surrounded by standing water after a storm. “It was not a pleasant place to be.”

But it was the logical place for the reclamation district headquarters, close to the boundary of the two counties it encompassed, and in a place where the equipment would stay mostly dry.

R.D. 2068, proposed in the same year that the bypass was formalized, is part of a system designed to organize the free-for-all that had governed things until then.

“It was flood-control anarchy,” Hardesty says. “As long as you were taller than the neighbor’s levee, you were probably gonna be OK.”

The reclamation districts centralized water management, with the farmers and ranchers within a district deciding how best to handle things. Sheep and cattle ranchers joined forces with tomato farmers and Sudan grass growers in an uncommon alliance. Inevitably, there were internal battles, but the arrangement, for the most part, worked. If anarchy wasn’t completely eliminated, it was at least consolidated into a more civilized chaos.

“The river,” Hardesty explains, “was considered the common enemy.”

After capturing and banding, environmental scientist Shaun ldenburger releases a pintail back into the wild.

Photo By dave feliz

The winter of 2010-2011 wasn’t just a wet one for California. The upper Midwest found itself under record snowfalls, which were followed by a series of early, wet storms. The effects of excessive channelization—forcing rivers into narrow channels in order to free up land for development—became painfully evident. The Missouri, the Ohio, the Mississippi, all rose quickly to flood stage. In response, a hole was blown in the levee below Cairo, Illinois, to relieve some of the pressure downstream. It was considered a desperate move.

But the Birds Point-New Madrid Floodway, the basin into which the water flowed, had been set aside for just that purpose. It was a bypass, like the Yolo Bypass, with the major difference that it hadn’t been used for nearly 75 years. The farmers in the basin knew they were in a flood plain, but they had gotten used to dry land.

It was a difficult accommodation that nonetheless showed the efficacy of the bypass system, a lesson that is taught almost every other year in Sacramento, if not necessarily learned. The fact is, without the Yolo Bypass, Sacramento would have gone under water years ago.

The bypass tackled the common enemy in a revolutionary way, using the river’s natural path to contain it. It was a huge leap in thinking from the accepted practice of never-ending levee building that eastern settlers had brought with them from the slow-rising rivers of their home states. But the breakthrough masked an even deeper problem, a cognitive dead end that is still alive and well: the idea that a river can be tamed at all.

Anyone who has watched the water lap at the tops of the levees and seen massive oaks bobbing past can easily picture the logical successor to the floods of the past.

“We really don’t know what the river’s capable of,” Dave Feliz cautions, setting a stack of newsletters on a chair. “I don’t think we’ve seen it yet.”

In flood, the bypass becomes a deceptively tranquil sea.

Photo By dave feliz

By September, the rice in the bypass has reached maturity. Birds rise and settle in waves across the flats, jockeying for position. October brings a burst of activity as the rice is harvested and hauled away, leaving only a spiked crew-cut of stubble. The cattle and sheep are herded out of the southern pastures, and a lull settles over the bypass. Colder air starts moving up the cut, creeping into the upper reaches, into Conaway Ranch and beyond. When the first serious rain hits, they move the last of the equipment out of the wildlife area, shut off the pumps and snap the locks on the gates.

The Department of Water Resources gauge at Fremont Weir can be viewed online, and shows quarter-hour readings of water level. You can watch the water creep up toward the top of the weir once the rains hit in earnest. At 33.5 feet, the graphing line turns green. The rising water strands terrestrial insects, stirs up seeds and spores, and begins breaking down the rice stubble. Otters follow the rising water from their deeper ponds, smelling the splittail, salmon and sturgeon that accompany the flood.

The bypass is considered a passive structure, but that is certainly a debatable description.

It is alive in all seasons, and though it appears domesticated much of the year, when it’s in full flood it can generate a distinct agoraphobia as you pass over it, stretching out of sight toward Mount Diablo. A remnant of wilder days, the intermittent sea materializes like a relative you’d almost forgotten about, right on your doorstep. A quick-tempered uncle who is both a fascinating guest and a surging reminder that you may be in for a long winter.