Watershed, Winter 2001
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Coastal Conservancy Proposes
Santa Clara River Parkway and Wildlife Preserve

In a stunning and unprecedented move in support of a continous riparian corridor along the lower Santa Clara River, the State Coastal Conservancy has kicked off a project to acquire a stretch of river floodplain properties from the estuary to South Mountain, and perhaps beyond. The project will encompass a total of over 6000 acres. Peter Brand, Conservancy project manager, has presented the proposal to both Ventura and Oxnard City Councils as well as to individual members of the Ventura County Board of Supervisors. All government bodies are in support of the proposal. For Ventura, the relocation of two city golf courses which are in the river floodplain remains a significant issue to be resolved and is being studied by the city and the Conservancy.

The acquisition of the fifteen mile-long parkway and wildlife preserve the river environment for the long-term future.

Resource Values

The lower Santa Clara River is home to seven endangered and two threatened species and thirteen other species or species groups of concern. Despite the recognized significance of the existing river and estuarine habitat, it is understood that more than any other section of the river, the floodplain has been constrained and degraded by private levees, mining, and water facilities, reduced from its former vast extent. Typical of the historical destruction of habitat, the estuary, once 870 acres of wetlands, is now 133 acres.

Acquisition of this continuous estuarine and riverine corridor will result in the restoration of over a thousand acres of habitat that had been converted to other uses and allow the river to return to its natural cycle of meander and braided flows which is critical for the endangered fish species. The lower Santa Clara River is proposed by the National Marine Fisheries Service for listing as critical habitat for the southern steelhead.

The 4,000 acres of restored and enhanced habitat will be a variety of decreasing coastal wetland types including estuarine intertidal emergent, palustrine scrub/shrub, and palustrine forested habitat. In addition to its value as habitat, reestablishment of riparian areas will also stabilize banks, slow flood flows, and reduce erosion.

The estuary and lower river provide crucial habitat for a number of federally listed threatened and endangered species. The endangered southern steelhead, least Bell's vireo, and southwestern willow flycatcher rely on habitat within the acquisition area. Four other threatened and endangered species, the tidewater goby, western snowy plover, California least tern, and Ventura marsh milkvetch, use habitat only in the lower river and estuary. There are thirteen other species of special concern.

Flood Management and Recreation

The Santa Clara River is the longest and potentially the most significant river in southern California because of its natural functions and its restoration potential. The agricultural and scenic heritage along the river is very significant but the most dramatic part of the river's history has been the flooding, from the St. Francis Dam Disaster to the shocking 1969 flood which wiped out crops and developed areas for approximately fifty miles.

Flood management and trails are two important goals of the project. The cooperation among property owners with the Coastal Conservancy and the linkages possible through existing public land along the river represents an unprecedented opportunity for river restoration in California. The success of this project to acquire sufficient floodplain to remove or substantially setback levees will help similar efforts on rivers in the central coast and the central valley. Following acquisition, private levees can be removed obviating the pressure for pilot channels, resolving longstanding regulatory battles and eliminating most of the costs of flood damage to farms and public facilities. Acquisition and public management at this time will allow for the integration of hundreds of acres of reclaimed gravel mining areas into the park and preserve. A continuous hiking trail through adjoining parks and the preserve (where appropriate) will provide environmental education opportunities in close proximity to the schools of Ventura and Oxnard.

The Conservancy has engaged two of the foremost authorities in the field of wetland restoration and floodplain restoration, Michael Josselyn, biologist, and Philip Williams, hydrologist to begin conceptual restoration plans. Also, the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers (Los Angeles District staff) has expressed strong interest in assisting with design and funding of this innovative coastal floodplain restoration project using their recently authorized Ecosystem and Aquatic Restoration Programs.

The size and continuity of the proposed park and wildlife preserve beginning at the estuary offer four important advantages over more detached, individual acquisitions. The historic floodplain can be reestablished without concern for downstream impacts to other ownerships. Public management is more efficient in a continuous park and public control can be more flexible in its response to the river's natural dynamics. Viable wildlife and habitat corridors can be created. A trail with interpretive facilities from the ocean to the mountains will be an important recreational resource for the two coastal cities. Adjoining property owners realize that public access will be encouraged where appropriate.

Implementation

The project is consistent with the consensus recommendations of the recently completed, five year planning effort of the Santa Clara River Enhancement and Management Plan (SCREMP) which included representatives of all of the interest groups on the river. The Coastal Conservancy has begun appraisals of several of the properties and will be prepared to begin acquisitions in the fall of 2000. The Coastal Conservancy or its representatives have contacted most of the property owners all of whom have expressed interest in the proposal.

Initial funding of implementation is part of the Governor's proposed 2000/01 budget for the Coastal Conservancy. The Conservancy has received a National Coastal Wetlands Conservation Grant for the acquisition of estuarine habitat near the river mouth. Also, the project has been selected as a priority project to be funded by the Southern California Wetlands Recovery Project, a partnership of state and federal agencies dedicated to the protection and restoration of the region's wetlands.

The Coastal Conservancy has been asked to take the lead on acquisition and the formation of a Joint Powers Authority for management of the public lands in cooperation with the cities of Oxnard and Ventura. The project has been endorsed by the City of Oxnard and City of Ventura Liaison Committee. The Conservancy has also begun discussions with Santa Clara River property owners and local philanthropists on the establishment of a Santa Clara River Foundation. Several landowners have discussed making cash contributions. One owner of approximately 1,000 acres has proposed donation or possible bargain sale of his property.

The Conservancy has applied for a grant from the Santa Clara River Trustee Council (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and State Department of Fish and Game), which administers oil spill settlement funds to be expended for acquisition and restoration of the river. If provided, Trustee Council funding joined with other sources will enable the first phase of acquisition resulting in implementation of the first five miles above the estuary consolidating 2,000 acres in public ownership and enabling restoration of approximately 1,000 acres of habitat.


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