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November 8, 2013

Habitat project expands along Tuolumne, San Joaquin rivers

Escrow closed Wednesday on the purchase of 466 acres that will be turned into natural floodplain and wildlife habitat where the Tuolumne and San Joaquin rivers join. It is on the southern boundary of the 1,603-acre Dos Rios Ranch, acquired last year for the same purposes.

State agencies this week paid $9.3million to buy a 466-acre dairy and farm in Stanislaus County near the confluence of the Tuolumne and San Joaquin rivers.

The so-called Hidden Valley Ranch is about 10 miles southwest of Modesto. It will be taken out of agricultural production and used to provide floodplain habitat along with the adjacent 1,603-acre Dos Rios Ranch, which was acquired last year for the same purpose.

During wet years when rivers swell, this ground will be allowed to flood to reduce pressure on levees near Lathrop and Stockton and to benefit salmon and other wildlife, according to the deal’s proponents.

“Giving rivers room to expand when waters are high is a cost-effective way to limit damage to populated areas, and also provides wildlife habitat,” said John Carlon, president of River Partners, the Chico-based group that led the acquisition.

River Partners, which has a Modesto branch office, also is leading the restoration of Dos Rios. That ranch was purchased last year from the Lyons family for $21.8 million, using funds from several public and private sources.

These projects aim to restore some of the riparian forest that covered much of the Central Valley before people dammed the rivers and converted land to farms, cities and other uses.

They lie next to the San Joaquin River National Wildlife Refuge, which stretches across 12,887 acres. The federal government has proposed nearly doubling its size, connecting it with the even larger refuges near Los Banos.

Hidden Valley Ranch has 1.5miles of meandering San Joaquin River frontage. It was owned by Michael and Darcy Nutcher, who had operated the dairy there – with their relatives Jerald and Carolyn Sanders – for more than 20 years.

Among the benefit of taking the Hidden Valley and Dos Rios ranches out of agricultural production is that demand for irrigation water will decline because that land no longer will be used to grow corn, wheat and other crops, Carlon said.

“Roughly 11,000 acre-feet of water per year won’t be pulled out of the Tuolumne and San Joaquin rivers,” said Carlon, noting how that water now can be used for other purposes. “That’s one of the best local benefits from this.”

The Nutchers are moving their dairy to a less environmentally sensitive region of the county.

“Hidden Valley Ranch is the key to reuniting the Tuolumne and San Joaquin rivers with an important stretch of floodplains,” said Steve Rothert, director of the California Regional Office of American Rivers, which helped with the purchase. “Science is increasingly pointing to the importance of providing room for rivers to function as they did historically and help protect public safety during floods and save salmon and other threatened wildlife.”

The two ranches’ levees will be modified to provide for flood flows and places where young salmon and steelhead trout can find food and shelter before heading downstream to the Pacific Ocean. “When this floodplain is restored, lots of young salmon will be able to access it, and get fat and happy on their way to the ocean,” Rothert said.

Backers said the protected land will provide winter habitat for migrating birds on the Pacific Flyway, which stretches from Alaska to Chile, and 15 animal species listed as endangered, threatened or species of concern.

The River Islands Fund, which is a restoration fund created through a 2007 settlement between real estate developers and nonprofit conservation organizations, provided the $300,000 deposit necessary to initiate the purchase.

The California Wildlife Conservation Board granted $3million toward the deal. The state Department of Water Resources added two grants totaling $6.3million, using money from voter-approved bond sales for flood control, wildlife and related purposes.

The Tuolumne River Trust, which also has a Modesto office, will hold a conservation easement on Hidden Valley, which guarantees that it never will be developed.

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