By Adam Davis, Managing Partner, Ecosystem Investment Partners
Earlier posts here like this one by Grant Lundberg and this one by David Guy have done a great job of describing the virtues of floodplain restoration. The profound dedication of people like Julie Rentner and Jacob Katz inform and energize the work of the entire Floodplain Forward coalition that I’m proud to be part of. But moving beyond plans to actually get work done on the ground is a task that needs broad support.
Restoring floodplains in the Sacramento Valley can only happen in places where there is room to let the river move beyond its banks, because that’s what floodplains are of course. The tremendous success of our economic development here in California means that every square inch of land is already being used for something and has an appraised value. At the same time, our remarkably diverse ecological niches mean that many species must be protected because their survival indicates the health of the underlying ecosystem itself.
Despite the urgent need for action, California has a permitting process for ecological restoration projects that struggles to make progress, because any action causes things to change on the ground. When things change there are effects on farmers and flood managers, neighbors and fishermen, water agencies and Swainson’s hawks.
And yet, because of the history of the way California managed to control the flooding of the Central Valley after the gold rush, told magnificently in the book Battling the Inland Sea, we have some room to act. Some opportunity. The Sutter Bypass and the Yolo Bypass were designed to essentially fill the role of floodplains back in the late 1800s. They allowed water to spill out of the main stem of the Sacramento River onto the land, and today they stretch some 70 miles from the tideline of the Delta to the Tisdale Weir, one to three miles wide most all the way. This wide-open land is managed, of course, for flood control and farming and hunting. But it’s also the only place in the entire system where the river could spread back out onto the land at scale, even in drier years, and be held long enough to provide food and habitat for fish.
Our company, Ecosystem Investment Partners, invests in land and the implementation of projects that provide natural habitat and ecosystem function. We’ve been able to raise significant amounts of capital to invest like this because we have a track record of being able to provide restoration results more quickly and less expensively than most current approaches can. And we’ve been able to raise this money because the timing is right for the recognition of a fundamental value principle: that natural systems are worth money. Not just to protect and enjoy, like parks and recreation areas, but also for what they do.
Because ecosystem services like food production for fish populations are public goods, their value must be recognized, and actually paid for, through a public process. Whether the resulting restoration is required by government and called ‘mitigation’, or whether it is purchased directly by government and called a ‘project’, the result is the same.
In California, the billions we’ve spent on water systems like the Central Valley Project and the State Water Project provide many times that amount each year in economic value. But the enormous system of dams and levees and canals and pipes and pumps we’ve built has not left enough room for young fish to grow or enough for them to eat. The fish and the floodplains are worth investing in too; not just because they are protected by regulations but because they are part of the water system. The natural part that was not sufficiently planned for when we built storage and protection and conveyance structures years ago.
To change things, we’re going to have to move from planning to doing. The restoration projects that EIP and the entire Floodplain Forward coalition are advancing can better balance human needs with the needs of the natural system. Some of them can be done through grants made with government oversight. Some can be done through public private partnerships using contracts that require private investment to a government standard before payments are made. But somehow, they must be done.
Our company is working under a contract with the Department of Water Resources to demonstrate that ‘private investment to a government standard’ can help to turn public plans and priorities into accomplished results. This Performance Contracting model allowed us to invest in a very large tidal restoration project just below the Yolo Bypass called Lookout Slough. We purchased 3,400 acres of private property in a location that meets science-based requirements set by public agencies, and we intend to begin converting the land to its natural state in the coming months once we’re through the challenging process of getting permission to proceed.
We’ve also invested in land in the Yolo Bypass to do what we’re calling the Floodprint Project that could provide some 6,000 acres of floodplain habitat. We know that getting this project actually built in a manner that accommodates flood control and the needs of the neighbors, and that can actually get permitted, will take years of effort. But the current drought just highlights the urgent need to keep moving ahead. We believe that the value of this project, and of the whole range of Floodplain Forward coalition projects, is real. Floodplains are part of California’s water system, and restoration is part of the solution.
For those looking for more information, please see the following:
- Our website at: https://ecosystempartners.com/.
- A video that highlights a few of the projects where we have tried to connect the work of restoring individual sites to some of the bigger issues of climate, infrastructure and jobs that are top of mind, and put some attention on the fundamental value proposition of nature-based solutions.
- A video from our partners and friends at Hanford ARC about an effort they’re leading called The Ecological Workforce Initiative
- Contact me at email@example.com.