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EcoRestore: Restoring California’s Great Estuary

Published: April 08, 2019

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An aerial view of the Delta. DWR/2019

The Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta is the largest estuary on the West Coast. It’s a maze of floodplains, rich farmlands, and leveed waterways that helps provide freshwater to 27 million Californians. For centuries, the Delta was a dynamic and rich ecosystem of tidal wetlands, riparian forests, and vast seasonal floodplains.

But about 98 percent of the native habitat disappeared after the Gold Rush and a population boom across the Golden State. The spike in human development contributed to a decline in native fish, wildlife, and plants. The State of California recognizes the critical need to restore the Delta’s natural habitat and protect water for fish and human uses. In 2015, the California Natural Resources Agency embarked on an initiative to restore 30,000 acres habitat across the Delta.

In 2018, the California EcoRestore initiative broke ground on five habitat restoration projects that create new tidal wetlands, establish new riparian habitat, and improve fish passage through flood infrastructure built over a century ago.

The Department of Water Resources is the lead agency on 28 of 30 EcoRestore projects, including those that launched last year. The ecological restoration of today also supports the modern Delta as a place for people to live, work and play.

EcoRestore is about unifying the partner agencies and organizations involved in Delta environmental restoration, and accelerating results.

Watch the video below to learn more about how EcoRestore projects seek to repopulate salmon, smelt and other endangered species by either improving flood infrastructure or creating sustainable habitats.


DWR Gets Fish Friendly with Retooled Infrastructure in Yolo Bypass

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View of the Fremont Weir Adult Fish Passage structure at the north end of the Yolo Bypass. DWR/2019

Editor’s note: The following article is part of a continuing series highlighting the California EcoRestore Initiative, which seeks to restore 30,000 acres of habitat in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta by 2020. California EcoRestore is an umbrella program that includes habitat restoration efforts implemented and funded by departments under the California Natural Resources Agency including Department of Water Resources, Department of Fish and Wildlife, and Delta Conservancy.

The Sacramento River moves water from Mt. Shasta to the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, gathering runoff from the Coastal Range and Sierra Nevada before turning toward Sacramento and joining with the American River. In wetter years, the Sacramento River swells to flood levels and releases water into the Yolo Bypass, a major flood control feature for the Sacramento Valley.

At 59,000 acres, the Yolo Bypass can hold four times the capacity of water as the Sacramento River.

The primary trigger for river releases into the bypass is the Fremont Weir, a 1.8-mile concrete wall that automatically overtops when the Sacramento River reaches a designated high-water mark. Water flows over the weir every two out of three years on average.

Built in 1924 by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Fremont Weir has been hailed as a simple yet impressive feat in sustainable flood protection and engineering.

What About the Fish?

The weir design, while forward-thinking at the time, revealed unintended consequences over time. Scientists discovered that when the Sacramento River overtopped the weir to flow into the Yolo Bypass, many adult Chinook salmon, steelhead, and sturgeon were delayed or stranded in the bypass.

As the fish, several of which are designated endangered or threatened species, swim north against the river’s current toward their spawning ground, they often mistakenly swim into the Yolo Bypass instead of staying in the river’s main channel. Some fish never make it back to the river. Even if they do, the diversion causes migration delays that may result in fish not spawning that year.

In 1965, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) built a “fish ladder” to help salmon, but over time scientists and engineers found that many fish were still marooned in the bypass. The fish ladder was an insufficient portal to pass through the weir.

A Modern Solution with Multiple Benefits

In 2018, DWR and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation (Reclamation) updated the fish ladder with a deeper, wider passageway in the weir to facilitate fish passage from the bypass to the river. In designing the Fremont Weir Adult Fish Passage Modification Project, DWR and Reclamation worked with an array of scientists, engineers and landowners from different organizations, including California Trout and American Rivers.

The design features an open channel fishway and a modern gate structure that automatically opens when water overtops at the Fremont Weir.

“The project allows fish to return to the Sacramento River. This connection improves fish passage and reduces the likelihood of fish getting stranded in the Yolo Bypass,” said Manny Bahia, DWR senior water resources engineer.

The passage corridor also accommodates migrating sturgeon, which can grow up to six feet long.

The retrofitted Fremont Weir will begin operations in winter 2019. DWR and Reclamation collaborated on the project in compliance with the 2009 biological opinion from the National Marine Fisheries Service to offset harm to fish populations caused by the State Water Project and Central Valley Project.

“Every adult fish we save helps protect the species. One adult that makes it to the spawning grounds can lay thousands of eggs,” said Karen Enstrom, program manager for the Yolo Bypass Habitat Restoration Branch at the Department of Water Resources.

Beyond flood control and fish habitat, the Yolo Bypass of today provides an array of benefits including waterfowl habitat, agriculture, recreation, and cultural preservation.

The Fremont Weir Adult Fish Passage Modification Project is one of many restoration and infrastructure improvements within the Yolo Bypass aimed at boosting salmon survival rates. Other projects include the Wallace Weir Adult Fish Rescue Facility, the Yolo Bypass Salmonid Habitat Restoration and Fish Passage Project, and the Lower Putah Creek Restoration Project.

Learn more about these projects on our website.

Contact:

Allen Young, Information Officer, Department of Water Resources

916-653-3925 | allen.young@water.ca.gov

Charlotte Biggs, Program Manager, Department of Water Resources

916-651-2997 |  charlotte.biggs@water.ca.gov


McCormack-Williamson Tract Project Aims to Protect People and Wildlife

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An aerial view of the southern tip of McCormack-Williamson Tract. DWR/2019

Editor’s note: The following article is part of a continuing series highlighting the California EcoRestore Initiative, which seeks to restore 30,000 acres of habitat in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta by 2020. California EcoRestore is an umbrella program that includes habitat restoration efforts implemented and funded by departments under the California Natural Resources Agency including Department of Water Resources, Department of Fish and Wildlife, and Delta Conservancy.

Located just south of the confluence of the Cosumnes and Mokelumne Rivers, the McCormack-Williamson Tract is a north Delta island with a long history of flooding. During the highwater events of 2017, water filled the island after the Cosumnes River overtopped the levee on the northeast bank. McCormack’s southern levees held firm, but had the levees broken, water could have rushed toward surrounding islands, potentially inundating private properties.

The Department of Water Resources (DWR), the Nature Conservancy, a conservation group that owns the site, and local, state, and federal partners acted fast: opening notches in levees on the north and south sides of McCormack to allow water to slowly drain off the island.

Once the flood season ended, DWR and its partners pumped the remaining water off the island, and repaired portions of the levees. Nearby landowners worked closely on the project, adding input as to where officials could open the levees.

“Landowners were happy we were able to move quickly and take action,” said Dawit Zeleke, Director of Conservation with The Nature Conservancy.

Breaking Ground

In 2018, DWR and its partners broke ground on a restoration project nearly a decade in the making. The project incorporates some of the fixes and lessons learned from the breaching event in 2017.

The McCormack-Williamson Tract restoration project, a 1,500 acre site, lowers the levees on the north side of the island to allow the river to overtop into the site. On the south side, DWR will alleviate the surge flows that pose a risk to neighbors by opening small holes in the levee. It’s a near replication of the response to the 2017 overtopping event.

2018 saw the completion of construction of a levee to protect existing infrastructure on the site, as well as progress on habitat restoration plans. For the next phase of the project, DWR will strengthen the interior levees and take steps toward opening the site up to tidal flows.

“The aim (of this project) is to restore natural floodplains and tidal marsh habitats, and also to reduce flood risk in the area,” said Anitra Pawley, McCormack-Williamson Tract project lead at DWR. “These are habitats which are very rare in the Delta and have been lost. We can recreate those habitats in this location.”

“We hope the restoration project will provide a tidal habitat for Delta smelt, and a shallow area for giant garter snakes and migratory birds,” she added.

The project brings together the goals of DWR, the Nature Conservancy and Reclamation District 2110 to restore the Delta island while balancing flood protection for neighboring residents.

McCormack-Williamson Tract is located at a higher elevation relative to most of the Delta. If the same project were attempted at a lower elevation, the land would be constantly inundated, a tidal habitat wouldn’t be possible, and fish and wildlife couldn’t adequately recolonize the area.

“The project is kind of a sweet spot in conservation because it has multiple benefits for people and wildlife,” Zeleke said.

Contact:

Allen Young, Information Officer, Department of Water Resources

916-653-3925 | allen.young@water.ca.gov


Dutch Slough Project Creates Richer Habitat for Delta Fish and Wildlife

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Editor’s note: The following article is part of a continuing series highlighting the California EcoRestore Initiative, which seeks to restore 30,000 acres of habitat in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta by 2020. California EcoRestore is an umbrella program that includes habitat restoration efforts implemented and funded by departments under the California Natural Resources Agency including Department of Water Resources, Department of Fish and Wildlife, and Delta Conservancy.

The Department of Water Resources (DWR) recently broke ground on the Dutch Slough Tidal Restoration Project, the largest tidal wetlands restoration project in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta to date. Located on the Delta’s western edge in Contra Costa County, the Dutch Slough project will transform approximately 1,200 acres of former grazing and dairy lands into a rich habitat for fish and wildlife.

Once completed, the project will utilize natural daily tides to allow water to flow in and out, creating a natural tidal wetland that provides a safer environment for salmon, splittail and other endangered fish species.

Historically, the Dutch Slough site was tidal marsh open to the rest of the Delta’s waterways. These wetlands helped support the base of the food chain.

Starting in the early 20th century, the creation of levees blocked off thousands of acres of wetlands from the Delta’s main channels, which diminished food production for fish and wildlife.

“It basically shut the grocery stores for most of the animals, there just wasn’t that much for them to eat anymore,” said Patty Finfrock, DWR Dutch Slough project manager.

Opening up the site to create the tidal wetland helps increase the density of the base of the food chain (such as clams, insects, and single-celled organisms) that support the fish in the main channels of the Delta.

Additionally, baby salmon migrating through the tidal wetlands to the ocean will now have a place to hide from predators and have greater access to food, which will help them grow stronger.

“Hopefully, the baby salmon will see this as a really great neighborhood to grow up in, because it is going to provide the things that they need – enough food to eat, and a safe place to live,” Finfrock said.

The site provides flood protection to surrounding neighborhoods, acting as a buffer against rising sea levels triggered by climate change. The project also includes a 55-acre regional park that will allow visitors to hike, bike, boat, fish, and birdwatch. The project also protects a historical vineyard, a local cultural heritage site that the public will be able to admire as part of the planned regional park.

“We don’t have to just restore habitat and set it aside for nature; we can do it in a way that provides lots of benefits to humans,” said John Cain, Director of Conservation for California Flood Management with American Rivers, a longtime advocate for this effort.

This project was designed to help scientists learn about restoration in the Delta. It will serve as a living laboratory where scientists can advance their understanding about the benefits of tidal habitat at a range of elevations. This knowledge will help inform future restoration projects – making them more cost-effective and ecologically valuable.

Dutch Slough is part of an effort by DWR’s Delta Levee Program, which ensures that there is no net habitat loss in the Delta because of the state’s levee improvement projects. The Dutch Slough Tidal Restoration Project is the result of years of hard work and a dedicated partnership between local, state, and federal agencies to plan and implement. The project is scheduled to be completed in 2021.

Contact:

Allen Young, Information Officer, Department of Water Resources

916-653-3925 | allen.young@water.ca.gov


Private sector partnership underlines DWR Flyway Farms restoration project

Published: 
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Yolo Flyway Farms. DWR/2018

Editor’s note: The following article is part of a continuing series highlighting the California EcoRestore Initiative, which seeks to restore 30,000 acres of habitat in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta by 2020. California EcoRestore is an umbrella program that includes habitat restoration efforts implemented and funded by the Departments under California Natural Resources Agency including Department of Water Resources, Department of Fish and Wildlife, and the Delta Conservancy.

The Department of Water Resources (DWR) completed construction on a 350-acre tidal restoration project at Yolo Flyway Farms on the northwestern edge of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.

The Yolo Flyway Farms Tidal Habitat Restoration project floods grazing land to create a tidal habitat for Delta smelt in the Yolo Bypass, a floodwater diversion zone in Yolo County. The effort was the result of a partnership between DWR and a private landowner for the creation of habitat restoration.

Through a first-of-its-kind agreement, DWR worked with Charles Tyson, the property owner, to develop the 350-acre tidal habitat restoration site. Following project completion, DWR will take ownership of the site and will be responsible for its long-term maintenance and upkeep.

“Individuals and farmers who own land can see an opportunity to enhance the value of their land – that’s very positive and very possible,” Tyson said.

On September 25, DWR breached the levee allowing the land to tidally connect to the toe drain, a narrow channel that connects the Yolo Bypass with the Sacramento River. Tules were then planted along portions of the newly excavated channels, which will create a conducive environment for the production of food for fish as the vegetation breaks down. The food will eventually wash back into the larger channel, boosting salmon survival rates within the Yolo Bypass.

“We’re doing restoration work in this region because it provides food and habitat to support endangered species,” said Bonnie Irving, DWR senior environmental scientist and Yolo Flyway Farms project manager.

“The more food that we can put back in the Delta, the more food we can produce for endangered fish,” Irving said.

The restoration effort is federally required. In 2008, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) determined that the pumps, aqueducts and other water infrastructure in California contributed to endangering the existence of the Delta smelt. USFWS mandated that the state of California restore 8,000 acres of tidal habitat in the Delta and Suisun Marsh.

Endangered fish populations continue to decline in the Delta. A 2017 survey by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) found only two Delta smelt after four months of trawling (dragging a fishing net across water).

The restoration project at Yolo Flyway Farms is part of the California EcoRestore Initiative (EcoRestore), a multiagency initiative coordinated by the Natural Resources Agency, which seeks to restore 30,000 acres of land in the Delta by 2020. EcoRestore responds to the 2008 USFWS mandate and other mandates by accelerating the work of 30,000 acres of restoration across the Delta, which will protect the Delta smelt, salmon, and other native species.

EcoRestore, which includes the tidal marsh projects launched by DWR’s Fish Restoration Program to achieve the federal mandate, also involves projects related to floodplain habitat restoration, fish passage, and improving subsided land and carbon sequestration. EcoRestore provides a vehicle to share lessons and other resources across these state-sponsored restoration efforts.

The overarching goal of California EcoRestore, and projects like Yolo Flyway Farms, is to return the natural ecological function to the Delta, the West Coast’s largest estuary that has badly deteriorated under human development.

Contact:

Allen Young, Information Officer, Department of Water Resources

916-653-3925 | allen.young@water.ca.gov


Decker Island project restores 140 acres of tidal wetland habitat, aims to boost fish survival rates

Published: 
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Aerial of Decker Island. DWR/2018

Editor’s note: The following article is part of a continuing series highlighting the California EcoRestore Initiative, which seeks to restore 30,000 acres of habitat in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta by 2020. California EcoRestore is an umbrella program that includes habitat restoration efforts implemented and funded by the Departments under California Natural Resources Agency including Department of Water Resources, Department of Fish and Wildlife, and the Delta Conservancy.

DWR recently completed construction that transforms an island in the heart of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta from a managed leveed site to an open tidal wetland reminiscent of the historical landscape.

Decker Island (Solano County) is located amidst the largest estuary on the West Coast, between freshwater and saltwater, where the endangered Delta smelt are concentrated. Over time, the Delta ecosystem and food web that native fish species depend on has been greatly diminished.

The Decker Island Tidal Habitat Restoration Project, which broke ground in August 2018, converts an existing wetland into tidal habitat. Under the plan, DWR breached levees along the perimeter of the 140-acre site, allowing water from the Sacramento River to move through the marshland. As the water flows out of the marshland, it carries microscopic plankton, plant particles, and other nutrients across the Delta’s waterways, where the tiny bits are eaten by Delta smelt and other fish and wildlife species.

“These tidal wetlands are the bread baskets of the Delta. This is where the basis of the food web is created,” said Dennis McEwan, Chief of the State Water Project Mitigation and Restoration Branch within DWR.

More than a century ago, levee systems were built up to protect agricultural land and urban areas from the seasonal and tidal waters. Since the 1800s, tidal wetland habitat in the Delta has declined from an estimated 350,000 acres to about only 10,000 acres. This loss of habitat has contributed to the steep decline of native fish and wildlife species. The restoration projects under California EcoRestore, such as this effort on Decker Island, seek to reverse this trend by providing the habitat and food sources needed to boost fish survival rates.

Decker Island is one of 13 projects planned and implemented by DWR’s Fish Restoration Program charged with restoring 8,000 acres of tidal wetland habitat in the Delta and Suisun Marsh, as required mitigation for the State Water Project and Central Valley Project long term operations. This effort has been a close partnership between DWR and the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW). CDFW will carry out the on-site biological monitoring to ensure the site functions as it was designed and to inform future restoration efforts.

Contact:

Allen Young, Information Officer, Department of Water Resources

916-653-3925 | allen.young@water.ca.gov