Think Out Loud

Lessons from California floodplain restoration

By Elizabeth Castillo (OPB)
Jan. 9, 2024 6:28 p.m.

Broadcast: Tuesday, Jan. 9

The West continues to be shaped by water issues. In Oregon, some floodplains affected by human interference are being restored to manage climate issues. And restoration projects are happening in California too. Dos Rios Ranch Preserve is a restored floodplain in the state’s Central Valley. The region has been affected by drought and flooding, but the restoration is helping mitigate the effects of extreme weather on the landscape. Jake Bittle is a staff writer at Grist. He’s reported on these issues for the outlet and joins us with details of the story and what bigger lessons can be learned from the project.


The following transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer:

Dave Miller:  From the Gert Boyle Studio at OPB, this is Think Out Loud. I’m Dave Miller. We turn now to the largest floodplain restoration project in California. It’s the Dos Rios Ranch Preserve in the San Joaquin Valley. It’s taken 10 years and $40 million to transform what had been farmland into what’s now habitat for protected species and a kind of natural buffer in our increasingly volatile climate. It’s also seen as a model for how other floodplain restoration projects in the West might work. Jake Bittle reported on Dos Rios recently as a staff writer for Grist and he joins us now. Welcome to the show.

Jake BittleThank you for having me.

Miller:  Can you describe what this area looks like now or what it sounds like now?

BittleIn the middle of a valley that has relatively polluted air and is full of industrial agriculture, you can smell cows and see tomato trucks carrying fruit everywhere, there’s this. It almost looks like a jungle or a swamp. It looks more reminiscent of Florida than what you might imagine from Central California. There’s birds, you can see deer and rabbits everywhere and it’s sort of like a very, very wet, almost marshy ground. And it’s this product for it having been flooded earlier this year. You have a very desiccated and sort of industrialized farming environment. And then in the middle of it, a sort of wild expanse of swampy ground.

Miller:  How different is it now from what you would have found, if you’d gone, say 20 years ago?

BittleRadically different. This area looked almost exactly the same as the rest of the Central Valley. It was home to a really large dairy operation and a number of really productive alfalfa and fruit fields. But I should say that, before the arrival of European settlers in the late 19th century and early 20th century, this is what almost the entirety of Central California looked like.

The whole area was basically kind of like an inland sea or like a huge swamp. It regularly flooded every spring. And it was only when we sort of tamed it for industrialized agriculture that it came to be kind of dried out and regimented. So it’s both very different from everything around it, very different from what it was a decade ago, but it’s almost identical to what it would have looked like, you know, 200 years ago.

Miller:  What was the big idea behind this restoration?

BittleSo the idea behind the restoration was basically that if you brought back, what they call Paleo floodplains, the floodplains that existed before agriculture, you could solve both of California’s water problems. The state always seems to have either too much water or too little. Either there’s not enough water to go around during dry years and everyone’s sort of fighting over the water or there’s too much in a wet year they had last year and it breaches the levees and everything floods.

So, the idea was that you could create a sort of expansive land for water to seep into, during wet years. That water would sink underground and refill the aquifers below the ground that had been drained by industrial agriculture. So it would provide a buffer both from flooding and also from drought.

Miller:  What were the challenges in putting this deal together? It took years.

BittleSo the challenges were that almost nobody had ever attempted anything like this. And the economic and political interests in the San Joaquin Valley in Central California are almost exclusively dedicated to agriculture, right? So the purpose of land and water is to grow crops and sell those crops to the rest of the country and to other countries. And so it took a long time to build consensus between environmental groups and farming interests who had historically been at odds over what we should do with water and how we should manage our rivers.

Not only that, but as you said, it took a lot of time to find the money. There was really no existing grant program or any sort of legal apparatus for doing this, for taking agricultural land and purposely flooding it and turning it back into a wild ecosystem. There was no architecture to do this. So they had to do an enormous amount of legal work, but also consensus building with the neighbors and the farming interests in the area.

Miller:  It seems significant here that this parcel of land - which is a very large one [and] as you said, was agricultural. It also wasn’t the most beloved piece of the former landowners empire, right? This was a parcel that it seems like he was happy to let go of?


BittleExactly. So this guy, Bill Lyons, was a former Secretary of Agriculture and he’s a fifth generation farmer. And he has a pretty large set of farming land in this part of the valley. And this part of it was right next to the San Joaquin and Tule Rivers, two big rivers that go through the valley. And it was pretty prone to flooding. It was productive land because it was near a river. So there was a lot of fertile soil there, being near the river bed. But every few years, he told me it would flood and he would have to get the crop insurance payment. The whole harvest would be gone.

So when the conservation nonprofit River Partners, that created the site, when they approached him about doing this, not only did they find a farmer who was open to conservation efforts, but they also found a piece of land that he was happy to get rid of. I think honestly, he wasn’t sure that it was going to make him much more money if he kept it. So he was willing to sell it to them and let them try this.

Miller:  Well, I mean, you do have a very sobering sentence in the middle of your article. You write, “Making good on the promise of Dos Rios will mean convincing the state’s farmers to occupy less land, irrigate with less water, and produce less food.” What’s the incentive for them to do so?

BittleWell, the incentive, as you say, is not an easy incentive to understand. But basically the incentive is that a lot of farmers in California already kind of have their backs against the wall when it comes to dealing with climate shocks and changing industry. There’s been a huge shortage of available irrigation water in recent years anyway. And the commodity markets have become so unstable that a lot of older generation farmers are finding that their children don’t really want to follow them into farming.

So the incentive is, if you’re willing to accept this as a producer, you can get out for a decent amount of money, a cash payment by selling your land to this nonprofit. You get rid of land that, otherwise, you’d have to keep investing in over and over again after it flooded. And, yes, you’re giving up on the future profits of that. But I think for a lot of farmers, they see the future industry as so uncertain and unstable that there’s a certain amount of security and safety in taking the offer that’s on the table.

Miller:  It almost sounds like there’s a convergence here. That the instability, led by climate change or exacerbated by climate change, could be a reason for some farmers to sell in a way that then could lead to a landscape that is more resilient to our changing climate.

BittleThat is exactly right. I think for decades, in the 20th century, the increasing diversion of water from these rivers and the increasing manipulation of land and water in the valley created a more combative environment between environmentalists and farmers. There seemed to be less to go around and there was more fighting over what to do with it, especially in the San Joaquin. And this is a very, very complicated political situation.

But now, I think because of the added stress of climate change, farmers are finding that, even this very manipulated system that’s basically set up explicitly to benefit their industry, it’s also straining under the stress of this sort of weather whiplash that California keeps experiencing. I think for a lot of them, they found that as much as they might be suspicious of a floodplain and restoration program, not only did they benefit from it economically, but they can see that it also makes the landscape around them and their communities more resilient to flooding and drought.

Miller:  But you also point out that it is possible for farmers with certain crops or certain kinds of land to recharge the aquifers under the ground, to flood their land without giving up farming. How does that work?

BittleThere’s this technique called managed aquifer recharge. It’s really interesting. Farmers who have land that’s next to a river can use a mechanical pump system to take water off of that river when it’s flooding and just basically dump it onto their land. They have to do some earthwork in preparation. But basically, it only works for certain types of crops. Vineyards and grapes are probably the best example. But you can just dump the water in the land, it seeps right into the ground and it recharges the underground aquifer. It’s basically like dumping water onto a sponge and watching it expand. And the crops themselves survive just fine.

So this has been tried in a few different rivers along the Central Valley. And yeah, I guess it’s a half measure almost. You don’t get rid of the land so you don’t create any additional flood protection. But you do shore up the water supply for your farm. So there is another way and it doesn’t involve this kind of radical change to the landscape. But I think most experts would say that it also doesn’t create the kind of ecosystem-wide and community-wide flood and drought protection benefits that this does.

Miller:  What do you see as the broadest lessons from this one project, for the rest of the West, for other parts of California or for Oregon or Washington?

BittleSo one challenge, and you’re right about California, is it seems like every dynamic in the United States is on display there, extremely so, and the San Joaquin Valley and Central Valley are very unique natural environments. But I think if you look at the history of the project and the way in which it required a kind of accorded consensus building between agriculture and environmental interests, you can see that there’s a huge lesson there for other ecosystems in the West that are dealing with water scarcity.

I think that one example is both the Upper Klamath and the Lower Klamath River Basins in Oregon. There’s been a long-standing conflict there over how to manage a tightly controlled water ecosystem. In the Lower Klamath it had to do with dam removals and salmon. And the Upper Klamath is about how the Bureau of Reclamation should manage water between protecting endangered species along the river and the lake and then sending water to the potato farmers in Oregon.

So there are big questions about how to manage scarce resources and how to deal with the stress on those resources from climate change. And I think that this was an example of a really productive solution that now has a lot of momentum behind it.

Miller:  Jake, thanks very much.

BittleNo problem. Thank you.

Miller:  That’s Jake Bittle, a staff writer for Grist. You can read his article about the Dos Rios project in Grist right now.

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