The cure for winter flooding might be in this swamp -- if California actually funds it
Published in News & Features
Matt Kaminski stood on a road scarcely higher than the floodplain, glassy pools on all sides stretched out like something from a dream. In the distance, a storm lumbered over the Coast Ranges.
The marsh all around him, Kaminski said, was a window into the Central Valley’s past. Back then, the waterways that twist down from the Sierra Nevada mountains would flood unrestricted by the current thicket of dams, canals and levees.
The more you know about rivers, the less confidence you have in a mapmaker’s static squiggle. Kaminski, a biologist from Ducks Unlimited who helps oversee the floodplain and, when it dries out, the grasslands, explained that when “the state of California was wild, it had a lot more wetlands.”
During the rainiest years, the whole valley could transform into an enormous, shallow sea. Floodwaters would spread over the landscape and percolate through the soil into the aquifers beneath. Little aquatic creatures would make their home in the tules and migrating birds would stop to gorge on their long journeys in the spring and fall. The Valley oaks and Fremont cottonwoods would rise, improbably, out of the shallows.
That appeared to be happening just east of Gustine in Merced County, as yet another storm from the tropics approached the valley: The San Joaquin River seemed to spread out and create an ephemeral wetland, a natural process.
But Kaminski pointed to the edge of the water, where three concrete slabs jutted into the marsh, and little slats of wood controlled the flow under the dirt road to the other side.
This marsh hadn’t flooded on its own.
Instead, the wetland was an artifice on top of an artifice. Powerful California interests “reclaimed” the Central Valley’s wetlands in the 19th and early 20th centuries, draining them for agricultural use and transforming the landscape.
The vast majority of the state’s marshes are gone.
But in little pockets in the state, people like Kaminski are reworking the land yet again to bring back a version of California’s past, in service of the future. By allowing rivers to spread out, flows are diverted from downstream communities, replenishing groundwater and staving off unwanted floods.
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