A brief history: UC Davis Putah Creek Riparian Reserve

Did you know that the UC Davis Arboretum and Public Garden also maintains and operates the Putah Creek Riparian Reserve (Reserve), several hundred acres along 5.5 miles of Putah Creek on the UC Davis campus? Our campus utilizes this riparian and grassland ecosystem for teaching and research purposes, wildlife and habitat protection, and community engagement. We are extremely fortunate to have the Reserve as a campus resource because, according to the State of California Wildlife Conservation Board, humans have removed, degraded, and disturbed 95% of California’s streamside habitat since the Gold Rush.

The Reserve has a history of disturbance and alteration by humans, but we are making huge strides toward restoring this endangered environment. In fact, it is a model for riparian restoration and now serves as inspiration for our ongoing Arboretum Waterway Maintenance and Enhancement Project.

Although the Reserve’s history is complicated, its path forward is clear. All the stakeholders for the area are working together, and the wildlife and native vegetation are beginning to flourish. But, that was not always the way…

According to the State of California Wildlife Conservation Board, humans have removed, degraded, and disturbed 95% of California’s streamside habitat since the Gold Rush.

In 1989, as the result of a 7-year drought, the UC Davis Putah Creek Riparian Reserve and other nearby riparian areas were suffering. Fish, trees and important plant habitats were dying; wildlife were abandoning the area and aquatic species perished in the mud. The issue was not only a lack of rainfall, but also confusion about water rights and whether California law obligated Solano County Water Agency to release water from a nearby Putah Diversion Dam to feed lower Putah Creek.

In 1990, the Putah Creek Council, a non-profit group founded to protect Putah Creek’s riparian habitat and water level, secured immediate, but temporary, relief for the creek in the form of greater water flows to the area. In 1991, they filed a formal lawsuit and in 1993, UC Davis and the City of Davis joined as additional plaintiffs. Flash forward about 7 years to the year 2000 when a judge found in favor of the plaintiffs and a subsequent settlement created an accord to establish permanent flows to the 23 miles of Putah Creek below the Putah Diversion Dam (including the Reserve). Great news, but now what?

Students fishing
Teaching Assistant Hunter Bolt instructs students enrolled in an animal biology laboratory how to catch and release crayfish from Putah Creek. In this class students conduct field experiments and report on their findings.

“The university and its partners just invested in the long-term health of the environment here and its value as a teaching resource,” says Andrew Fulks, an assistant director of the UC Davis Arboretum and Public Garden and director of the Putah Creek Riparian Reserve. “But it was no one department’s responsibility to care for it.”

So, in 2002 the university hired Fulks to manage the Putah Creek Riparian Reserve. He worked with the campus to establish a vision for the Reserve including creating a formalized network of trails, re-establishing native vegetation, removing invasive plants, restoring habitat, and more, but before he could tackle any of that, he first had to work on securing the area.

“Back then the Reserve was akin to the ‘Wild West,’” explains Fulks. “Because it wasn’t actively being managed, the Reserve had become a popular dump, illegal camping area, and destination for off-road recreational vehicles.”

While those issues still exist from time to time, they are less frequent thanks to the watchful eyes and creative problem-solving skills of the Reserve’s Manager Jean-Philippe Marié. Now that the water and trespassing issues are resolved, this small, but nimble team’s focus is on restoring the Reserve, improving the riparian ecosystem, and supporting the area as a resource for research and community engagement. This vision is well on its way thanks to collaboration from our partners including the Putah Creek Council, the Lower Putah Creek Coordinating Committee (a group of stakeholders from both Yolo and Solano County formed as a result of the lawsuit accord), the Arboretum and Public Garden’s Learning by Leading Restoration Ecology students, and the Solano County Water Agency.

“Yes, that Solano County Water Agency,” says Fulks. “The same agency we argued against over water rights is now an essential partner!

“They have gone above and beyond and are fully engaged in improving the area’s ecosystem services. In fact, in 2009, they received an environmental award from the City of Davis.”

The Solano County Water Agency has also recently agreed to fund the Arboretum and Public Garden’s Learning by Leading Restoration Ecology internship for at least the next year and envisions long-term support of this program in the future. We as an organization and community have so much to applaud them for, including their creation of multiple salmon spawning areas along the creek. The Solano County Water Agency estimates that this work led to 1500-1800 salmon coming up the creek last year – the highest ever recorded since the return of stream flows in 2000.

There are so many more stories to tell about the Reserve and its importance to the campus as a resource for research and student learning. Create your own story this summer! Exploring this area is equivalent to entering a time machine to understand what the Arboretum must have been like well before the university arrived. Start your walk from one of the Reserve’s trailheads and gain an appreciation of this endangered riparian habitat.

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