Feather River CRM Group

Posted: Jan 7, 2005
Written by: 
Jane Braxton Little

Feather River Watershed, Plumas County, California.

Objective: To protect, maintain and enhance ecosystems and community stability in the Feather River Watershed through collaborative landowner participation

 Restoration work near Greenville
Photo by Jane Braxton Little
History: Erosion was choking the Feather River when a handful of Plumas County entrepreneurs devised an experiment. Instead of dredging reservoirs and riverbeds to combat the sediment, they decided to try reducing it where it began - upstream in the tributary creeks and meadows of the Sierra Nevada in northeastern California. In 1985, just before winter closed the roads, they built four u-shaped rock and gravel check-dams in Red Clover Creek, 60 miles above a series of privately owned hydroelectric dams. That winter tested the experiment, with 20 inches of rainfall in five days washing out century-old bridges and roads. To nearly everyone's surprise, the check-dams not only survived; they also held back their share of sediment.

The Red Clover success encouraged other watershed restoration experiments to combat the erosion caused by a century of grazing, mining, logging, and road building. The entrepreneurs began planting willows to stabilize degraded stream banks, building fish ladders to allow access to spawning gravels, and constructing additional check-dams to slow sediment flows and spread water out across meadows throughout the upper Feather River watershed.

The work inspired a unique partnership. Ranchers and loggers, utility company executives and anglers, and local, state, and federal agency officials all share an interest in the land and the water that cascades through it from California's northern Sierra Nevada to the Sacramento River and San Francisco Bay Delta. In an area where 70 percent of the land is owned by the federal government, they realized that none of them could make improvements without the cooperation of other landowners. The Feather River Coordinated Resource Management (CRM) group, formed in 1986, committed itself to collaborative watershed restoration using a process of consensus-based decision-making that has been adopted throughout the West. Its organization under Plumas Corporation, a local non-profit economic development firm, has provided coordination and a legal structure that was particularly important during the first few years.

 Big Flat wet meadow restored using the pond-and-plug technique
Photo by Jane Braxton Little
Accomplishments: Since 1985, the Feather River CRM has completed over 60 projects within a watershed larger than the state of Delaware. The group has restored more than 7,500 acres of wetlands and around 40 miles of severely degraded stream channel. Several of the activities have been as experimental as the first check-dams in Red Clover Valley. A three-phase project on Wolf Creek in Greenville, a town of 2,000 residents, was the first in the nation to return historic meanders to an urban stream and involved multiple landowners.

At Big Flat near the eastern Sierra escarpment, the CRM group used a "pond and plug" technique in the first project of its kind in the nation. They dug several ponds and used the dirt they excavated to fill in a network of eroded gullies that rutted the bone-dry meadow. By the following spring, the meadow was saturated with the winter runoff that would have raced downstream. Surface water had found its way across the meadow in a natural, meandering channel.  The project was the subject of an article published in Environmental Science and Technology in 2006 on the signigicant stream temperature lowering aspects of meadow rewatering.

Big Flat was the first of numerous projects designed to rewater meadows in the upper Feather River watershed. Raising the water table halts the rush of spring floods, releasing water slowly through the arid summer months. For downstream water users as far south as Los Angeles, extending the timing of the water flowing out of the northern Sierra Nevada increases the quantity available for municipal and agricultural customers.

The Feather River restoration work has improved the habitat for fish and wildlife, but its work is driven as much by economic imperatives as environmental incentives. The initial impetus was to avoid an $80 million dredging project in hydroelectric company reservoirs. Ranchers joined up to halt the loss of their lands to erosion. Project managers have always been committed to the local workforce, encouraging loggers and heavy-equipment operators to redirect their skills toward ecosystem restoration and maintenance. The combined restoration projects have pumped more than $15 million into the local economy and created regular jobs for as many as 30 people.

In 2005, the Feather River CRM, the County, the State Department of Water Resources and the downstream water contractors developed an integrated plan and process to guide stream and meadow restoration.  The group has also developed a citizen monitoring program accessible here.

Aerial photo of Feather River in 2007.
Photo courtsey of Feather River CRM
The partnership of 23 public and private groups has also established itself as a model for natural resource collaborations. It is one of the longest-running alliances and one of the most successful. Trust, initially tentative among the non-traditional allies, has become the foundation that allows the many innovations pioneered in the Feather River watershed. Each project gets careful on-the-ground monitoring, which allows the partners to adapt their work based on proven successes and failures.

Challenges/constraints: The Feather River CRM has successfully attracted money for its restoration projects, but it struggles to fund the more mundane work of office management and program coordination. Many individuals and agencies requesting help are forced to wait until the group's five full-time staff members can find the resources to assess the landowners' needs and suggest solutions for each unique piece of ground. With no ongoing financial commitment, the group is continually seeking grant funding, a process that is time consuming and repetitive, and breeds organizational uncertainty.

After nearly 20 years of postage-stamp projects here and there throughout the watershed, the Feather River group has embarked on restoration at the landscape scale. The nine miles recently completed in the Last Chance Creek Watershed Restoration Project is the first of many large-scale projects the group envisions. This, however, requires an innovative approach that extends beyond the comfort level of many landowners and agencies. It also requires a larger block of funds than a project-by-project approach, and a commitment through time that is sometimes beyond the capacity of agencies whose budgets are approved annually. In particular, continuing monitoring will be required to assess the project outcome.

Despite a dedicated core, the Feather River CRM faces frequent turnover among its agency partner representatives. Some are more committed than others. As a result, communication is a regular challenge. The emphasis on monitoring has offered an on-the-ground focus that allows each partner to participate through each individual interest.

For more information see:

Feather River Coordinated Resource Management web page
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