Assemblyman Adam Gray visits future state park, praises River Partners’ conservation efforts

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(Grayson) – Assemblymember Adam Gray got a close look at what could be the prototype for new state parks up and down the San Joaquin Valley.

Gray joined River Partners President Julie Rentner and project manager Austin Stevenot for a walk around Dos Rios Preserve, which was designated in this year’s budget to become the first new state park created in California in more than a decade. It will also be the first state park accessible within Stanislaus County.

“The West Side is all too often the forgotten side of California,” said Gray. “This park will not only celebrate our Valley, it will prove that nature can thrive in the midst of the most important farming region in the world.”

River Partners is the largest riparian habitat and floodplain restoration group in California, having completed nearly 300 projects with another 50 under way. They began acquiring the Dos Rios property in 2011 when rancher Bill Lyons sold the Ranch.

To create the preserve, River Partners removed old nut trees and planted native species such as cottonwood, Valley Oak, milkweed and elderberry bushes. They used the same irrigation techniques found on nearby farms to ensure the plantings took root. Rentner said floodplains provide a host of benefits to birds, that often migrate thousands of miles to spend the winter and spring in the Valley.

Recent studies prove that floodplains are essential to the survival of threatened fish species. Juvenile salmon use them like fitness centers, putting on muscle as they prepare to swim through the Delta to the Pacific. Currently, striped bass in the Delta eat 97 to 99% of all juvenile salmon exiting the San Joaquin River; stronger salmon would have a better chance of survival.

Gray was most interested in learning about the importance of floodplains in reducing flood damage – shown by scientists to pose a profound danger due to climate change. In 2017, an “atmospheric river” threatened to spill out of Don Pedro Reservoir.

Across a restored floodplain, the Tuolumne floodwaters will spread out and slow down. That will take pressure off fragile levees protecting downstream communities like Lathrop, Manteca and Stockton. It will also increase groundwater storage in aquifers, benefiting communities like Grayson, Westley and Patterson.

Renter pointed out that native trees “just spring out of the ground” at Dos Rios. That’s important, since fast-growing Valley trees sequester twice as much carbon below ground as mountain forests. The native grasses such as dogbane, sedge and soaproot provide cover and food for insects and small animals and raw materials for Native American basket weavers.

It will take at least a decade for the preserve to become a state park, but already larger animals are arriving. Stevenot pointed to the tracks of black-tailed deer as he walked with Gray. And he was happy about the arrival of two beavers in the area. The Los Angeles Times and New York Times both recently wrote about the importance of beavers in creating meadows, cleansing water and getting more of it into aquifers.

Gray got $40 million in the latest budget allocation to help River Partners identify, acquire and develop additional floodplain preserves throughout the Tulare and San Joaquin basins.

The significance of that allocation reaches far beyond the boundaries of any project or planned outdoor space, said Rentner. “This funding will help create more places to grow healthy communities and stronger local economies as we recruit locally for good-paying jobs and buy more local goods and services to help restore areas in the future.”

Gray’s vision was similar. “We’re not just getting a state park,” he said, “we’re creating a template for future parks. We’re looking at fulfilling multiple conservation and water objectives that are crucial to saving our Valley. Restored floodplains will bring us more water, more wildlife and lessen flood damage.”

“River Partners has created a template for effective conservation that does not alienate the people most important to making conservation.”