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California

The Santa Clara River

The Conservancy has made major strides protecting one of the most important and intact river systems in southern California. A vital source of fresh water for our consumption and for farmers, the Santa Clara River and its tributaries also offer some of the last riparian and freshwater habitat for wildlife in southern California within hundreds of miles.

The Stakes Are High

Starting high up in the Angeles National Forest in Los Angeles County and flowing down into Ventura County and the Pacific Ocean, the Santa Clara River and its tributaries are surrounded by 12 million people. As the population soars — experts predict 19 million by 2020 — urban sprawl bears down on the river and its watershed, delivering a triple threat impacting

  • The supply and quality of the region’s fresh water, including groundwater recharged by the river
  • The farmers whose fields and groves line the river and surrounding lands, making a healthy contribution to the local economy and regional identity
  • The plants and animals within the watershed that rely on the extensive freshwater and riparian habitat of the river system, including a staggering 38 species on the state or federal threatened or endangered lists and hundreds more migratory and resident species

Adding to the pressure, 95 percent of southern California’s river and wetland habitat has already been lost. In fact, this is one of the last rivers in southern California that remains relatively natural. Large sections of other major rivers in the region — once big, flowing rivers — have been reduced to concrete channels, including the Santa Ana, San Gabriel and Los Angeles rivers. The Santa Clara River and its tributaries offer perhaps our best chance for protecting river habitat in southern California.

Early Successes through Farmer Partnerships

When we launched the Santa Clara River project, southern California was at the peak of one of its largest real estate booms, with building plans being approved as fast as they were proposed. It became clear that protecting the 84-mile-long river and its numerous tributaries would not be enough to save them and their wetlands. To be truly effective, we needed a buffer zone between the river and the developed areas. The threatened farmland could provide that buffer.

We began partnering with the farmers and open-space advocates of the region to develop land-use policies that protected the farmers’ livelihoods and explored ecologically compatible farming techniques that safeguarded the habitat and water supply.

Preventing a Future of Concrete

Working alongside county agencies, we began discussing innovative flood-control policies that would prevent the river from suffering the channelized, concrete-lined fate of its sister rivers.

Today, we have protected one-third of the river that winds through Ventura County, and we’re now taking on the Los Angeles portion of the river to accomplish our goal of protecting close to 30,000 acres of river in the midst of one of the world’s fastest growing metropolises.

Maintaining Ground, Supporting the Natives

Restoring the river includes working with our partners to find smarter ways to combat the tremendous problems brought on by invasive weeds, like Arundo donax, a head-high grass that chokes out the native plants that hundreds of animals depend on for food and shelter.

We are removing extensive stands of Arundo to allow the native vegetation to return and provide habitat for nesting species, including two federally endangered songbirds, the least Bell’s vireo and the southwestern willow flycatcher.

Native animals, in addition to native plants, are benefiting from our efforts. In one of the nation’s most ambitious carnivore studies, our partner, the National Park Service, is studying how large predators like bobcats and mountain lions cope with urban development. The results will help us identify ways to protect viable habitats for these original native residents given the development that is bound to occur with the human population explosion.

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