Farmers wary of Sacramento River habitat plan

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Farmers wary of Sacramento River habitat plan

Glen Martin, San Francisco Chronicle Environment Writer  

April 17, 2002


Under a state conservation plan, flood-prone farmland along the Sacramento River would be purchased from willing sellers. Chronicle photo by Kat Wade

Farmers and environmentalists generated tremendous publicity three years ago when they launched a rare cooperative project to convert 213,000 acres of erodible farmland along the upper Sacramento River to wildlife habitat.

Now, the venture has hit a major snag. Participants in the plan voted last month to slash the size of the conservation zone by more than 60 percent -- to 80,000 acres -- after farmers expressed worries that farming near the river would be jeopardized.

The setback illustrates the vulnerability of the cooperative conservation approach that has been the darling of government agencies and environmental think tanks in recent years.

Conservationists said the decision squandered an opportunity to both restore wildlife habitat and protect viable agriculture.

"This is an example of the agricultural community shooting itself in the foot," said John Merz, the director of the Sacramento River Trust and a member of a committee advising the venture. "The goal is to restore riparian habitat, but it was always understood that was going to be balanced with agricultural needs. . . . It was never intended that all the designated land was going to be turned into habitat."

Known as the Sacramento River Conservation Area, or SRCA, the zone was formed in 1993 following state legislation authorizing a management plan for the Sacramento River from Shasta Dam to Verona that would restore its fisheries and wildlife.

A nonprofit group was created to administer the program, made up of landowners and public interest representatives from the seven counties in the proposed conservation zone.

A major emphasis of the plan was the purchase of flood-prone farmland from willing sellers.

Levees would then be removed or set back on these parcels, converting the land into "meander belts" where the river could wander through restored wildlife habitat during "high water events" -- floods, in other words.

Under the plan, 30,000 to 40,000 "inner zone" acres were to be designated as potential meander belt, and would have priority for voluntary land purchases and restoration projects.

The remaining "outer zone" acreage extended to the river's 100-year flood plain and would also be eligible for certain habitat projects. The reductions authorized by the conservation area group are all "outer zone" areas.

Four of the seven counties involved in the plan -- Butte, Colusa, Sutter and Yolo -- have opted out of outer zone participation entirely. Glenn County farmers also expressed discomfort with projects in the outer zone but declared support for the cooperative dialogue that buttresses the conservation area process.

Only two counties -- Shasta and Tehama -- have stuck to the original plan, supporting projects in the outer zone.

Many farmers said the sheer size of the conservation zone had become an increasing source of concern for the agricultural community.

"It disturbed farmers who feared . . . . set-back levees could mean a total disruption of their lifestyle," said Tom Evans, a consultant to the Family Water Alliance, a farmers' group that led the fight to scale back the conservation area.

The Family Water Alliance was formed in 1991 to resist government proposals to reduce agricultural water deliveries for the benefit of endangered Sacramento River salmon. It has since expanded its purview to agricultural land use issues.

"People up and down the river were really getting heartburn about the possibility of agencies' trying to buy land and convert it to habitat," he said.

But conservationists said the Family Water Alliance hamstrung the process by harping on hypothetical scenarios that have no grounding in reality.

"The farmers have been subject to extreme pressure from the Family Water Alliance," said Merz of the Sacramento River Trust. "The whole issue of restoration has been compromised by fear."

Burt Bundy, general manager for the SRCA, said the Family Water Alliance had succeeded in defining the project to the communities along the river. "If people were truly convinced by the alliance, I can understand why they acted as they did," Bundy said. "I think it's unfortunate, because it undercuts the entire collaborative process."

Evans said he never thought government agencies could buy all the land in the original conservation area and convert it to habitat.

"It would be so costly it's politically impossible," he said. "But the SRCA handbook talks about how suitable the soils are in the outer zone for conversion to upland habitat. It talks about how there are 50,000 acres appropriate for conversion in the Colusa to Verona reach, an area with a very confined river. That means virtually all of that land lies beyond existing levees. For farmers, those are very legitimate concerns."

Sam Lawson, the Sacramento River project director for the California Nature Conservancy, the lead environmental group in the promotion of the conservation area, said the conservancy remained committed to a cooperative approach along the river.

"The farming community has largely excluded itself, and they'll be missed," said Lawson. "The fact is that the lines on the map didn't force people to the table -- the people who were at the table were there because they wanted to be.

We'll continue to work with the farmers from Shasta and Tehama counties, and the door will always remain open to the agricultural community in the other counties."

But some think the conservation area reduction is transitory resistance to an ineluctable trend.

"The SRCA was a way for people to sit down and talk, but (land sales and habitat restoration) are going to happen in any event," said Denny Bungarz, a Glenn County supervisor and a former chairman of the SRCA.

"That's because the general public -- which doesn't necessarily include the majority of people in rural counties -- wants it to happen," said Bungarz. "Public land acquisitions for wildlife are very popular with most of the people in this state.

"Also, there are plenty of farmers who are tired of fighting the river. They see there's no money for building new levees, but there is money for land acquisitions. A lot of them will end up taking that money."

E-mail Glen Martin at glenmartin@sfchronicle.com.

 

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