That is about to change.
In the budget just signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom, enough money has been dedicated to start creating California’s first new state park since Fort Ord Dunes in Monterey County joined the system more than a decade ago.
The proposed 2,100-acre Dos Rios Ranch State Park in western Stanislaus County has the potential to be as wonderful as it is unique.
River Partners, a conservation group that has completed some 300 river restoration projects across the state — and has dozens more in the pipeline — laid the groundwork. The nonprofit purchased the first 1,600 acres at the confluence of the San Joaquin and Tuolumne rivers in 2012 and has since added another 500 acres.
Using planting and irrigation techniques any Central Valley farmer would recognize, River Partners transformed a flood-prone farm into a thriving riparian habitat.
Staff and volunteers planted 350,000 native trees, shrubs and grasses and restored natural contours to create a preserve hospitable to the valley’s unique wildlife, such as the endangered riparian brush rabbit, Western monarch butterfly, Swainson’s hawk and steelhead trout, to name a few.
Scientists know that on food-filled floodplains, young salmon grow strong — we call them “floodplain fatties.” Stronger, larger, juvenile salmon have a much better chance of evading hungry bass and surviving the journey through the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta to the Pacific Ocean.
During this awful drought, it’s hard to recall that the Tuolumne River flooded in 1997, damaging some 1,800 homes near Modesto. In 2017, so much water rushed into Don Pedro Reservoir that officials feared it would spill, causing devastation from Modesto to Stockton.
The draft 2022 Central Valley Flood Protection Plan shows that peak flood flows on the San Joaquin River often could double and occasionally increase fivefold in coming decades because of a changing climate.
All that water needs a place to go.
Dos Rios would act as a pressure-release valve, allowing floodwater to spread, slow and sink, recharging the region’s aquifers. Meanwhile, new forests of valley oaks and cottonwoods will capture greenhouse gas twice as fast as mature Sierra Nevada forests, slowing climate change.
A new park just 10 miles west of Modesto means northern San Joaquin Valley residents won’t have to drive hours to find first-class recreational space. A beautifully restored river landscape will be at their doorstep. Just across the river is the San Joaquin River National Wildlife Refuge — every year a temporary home to hundreds of thousands of migratory waterfowl.
Creation of the park was made possible by California’s historic budget surplus, but we consider it an investment, not an expenditure. Groundwater recharge and flood relief are utterly crucial for the Central Valley. Restoration of the riverbanks will create good jobs for many residents.
This multibenefit conservation model can be used across the state, hopefully resulting in dozens of river parks up and down the Central Valley.
Before that can happen, there’s plenty of work to do at Dos Rios Ranch, and it will require the efforts of everyone who shares our dream. Soon, state leaders will be asking what Dos Rios State Park should include, how it should look and be run. After gathering input from the community, we can begin turning this dream into reality.
Building on what River Partners and an alliance of determined government, industry, nonprofit and science partners started two decades ago, we will be bringing a state park to Stanislaus County and a river back to life. And that will bring more life to the Central Valley.
Adam Gray, Special to CalMatters