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    Tidal Marsh or ‘Fake Habitat’? California Environmental Project Draws Criticism

    By Ian James

    Southwest of Sacramento, the branching arms of waterways reach into a patchwork of farm fields and pastures. Canals and wetlands fringed with reeds meet a sunbaked expanse of dry meadows.

    These lands on the northwestern edge of the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Deltahave now been targeted for restoration following the widespread destruction of estuary marsh habitats that began over a century ago.

    But one habitat restoration project funded by a large agricultural water district is drawing criticism from environmental advocates. They say that while the project is based on claims of ecologically important marsh habitat, a large portion of the land is a high-and-dry former cattle pasture that does little to benefit endangered fish.

    The dispute over the roughly 2,100-acre property centers on questions about which lands should be counted as tidal marsh habitat in the delta, one of California’s primary water sources. State and federal agencies that operate the two major water projects pumping from the delta have been supporting a series of habitat restoration projects as they work toward a requirement to restore at least 8,000 acres of tidal marshes to mitigate the ecological harm caused by water diversions.

    A large portion of that requirement could be satisfied by the property southwest of Sacramento — called the Lower Yolo Ranch Tidal Habitat Restoration Project — if federal wildlife officials agree with claims by state and federal water agencies that much of the property should receive credit as tidal marsh that benefits endangered delta smelt.https://datawrapper.dwcdn.net/2MFYt

    The Westlands Water District bought the property in 2007 and has done restoration work at the site by grading the land, removing concrete infrastructure and digging new tidal channels and swales. Thomas Birmingham, general manager of Westlands, has said the district bought the property because it was “an ideal location for restoration of tidal marsh habitat.”

    The state Department of Water Resources has claimed that more than 1,700 acres, or about 80% of the property, benefits delta smelt. If the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service confirms this and grants full credit for the acreage as tidal marsh habitat, Westlands is set to receive nearly $41 million from the state.

    But environmental advocates argue that only about one-fourth of the property should receive credit as tidal marsh habitat, while the rest of the land is too high above sea level to get wet during high tides. They have pointed to documents indicating that much of the property lies 6.5 feet or more above sea level.

    “They’re paying Westlands for fake habitat,” said Patricia Schifferle, director of Pacific Advocates, an environmental consulting firm. “Much of the area is upland habitat and will not support fish. … They’re selling cow pasture as if it was tidal habitat.”

    The property is in the southern portion of the Yolo Bypass, a floodplain on the north side of the delta.

    The delta smelt, a finger-length fish, has been spiraling toward extinction despite decades of rescue efforts.

    Schifferle pointed out that the Department of Water Resources’ request to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, to certify credit for 1,713 acres of tidal marsh habitat, includes lands as much as 7.7 feet above sea level. Schifferle said that is too high to benefit fish.

    “Delta smelt better grow legs, because there’s no way that’s tidal habitat for delta smelt,” Schifferle said. At $23,815 per acre, she said, “that’s a lot of money for cow pasture.”

    A coalition of environmental groups raised concerns about the deal in a letter to state agencies in July. The groups, which included the Sierra Club and the Natural Resources Defense Council, said documents show “that there generally is no tidal influence on lands at elevations above 6.5 feet above sea level in this part of the delta, and therefore these lands are not ‘tidal’ marsh, ‘tidal wetland,’ or ‘intertidal’ habitat” and should not be credited toward meeting environmental mitigation requirements for the State Water Project.

    Click here to read the full article in the LA Times


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