Response to Rich Rifkin: Not all species are created equal, but all deserve our concern
Winters Putah Creek Park – Case Study of a Failed Project

Lawsuit Filed Challenging Adequacy of Environmental Review of Winters Putah Creek Park Project

Putah-creek-friends(Press release) On June 18, a lawsuit was filed by Davis Attorney Don Mooney, Esq. on behalf of his client, the 501(c)3 non-profit Friends of Putah Creek. The defendants named in the lawsuit are the Solano County Water Agency (SCWA) and the Central Valley Flood Control Board (CVFCB).  The lawsuit alleges that the CVFCB improperly approved an Encroachment Permit allowing the SCWA to continue to perform radical stream alterations on Putah Creek though the City of Winters and immediately downstream without doing appropriate environmental review as required by the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). The lawsuit demands that the CVFCB require the SCWA to perform the requisite environmental review before proceeding with further work in the Putah Creek floodplain.

BACKGROUND OF THE WINTERS PUTAH CREEK PARK “RESTORATION” PROJECT AND LACK OF ENVIRONMENTAL COMPLIANCE - The Winters Putah Creek Park project is a so-called streamrestoration” that as initially proposed would have minimally disturbed the Putah Creek floodplain through the City of Winters by removing only invasive plant species and replanting the floodplain with native species. A Master Plan and Mitigated Negative Declaration that covers the Winters Putah Creek Park project was prepared by the City of Winters over a decade ago and is the only CEQA-related environmental review of the project.

These original plans were to be the guiding documents for all subsequent work and primarily focused on improvement of the riparian forest along the Creek by defining what plant species were to be preserved and lists invasive species to be removed. The plan stated that all native trees should be protected from damage, and only removed if deemed a hazard or “an impediment to approved renovation projects”. Annual work plans were to be provided for public review but, to date, no specific plans documenting what native trees and shrubs were to be removed have been submitted.

In addition to not removing native plant species, the Master Plan also specified that no foreign soil was to be imported into the floodplain. Further, a new swimming hole was to be provided for the enjoyment by the youth of Winters to replace that removed by the restoration project and improved and handicap access to the project by the public was to be provided. The Master Plan also specified that any substantial modification from the original plan was to be preceded by further environmental review as required by the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA).

Subsequent to the development of the original Master Plan, however, large amounts of grant money became available through state bond funds and the entire scope of the project changed drastically. Instead of discrete removal of only invasive plants, more than 90% of all native trees and vegetation in the riparian forest were bull-dozed and cleared. Instead of minor ground preparation for native replanting along the existing stream, the SCWA imported thousands of truckloads of fill which large earth-movers used to completely change the entire course of the stream bed through the project. This radical alteration of the floodplain was called “geomorphological engineering” by its proponents. They claimed it would improve habitat for fish, plants, and other native wildlife. In fact, not only has this Creek alteration utterly failed to improve wildlife habitat on the Creek but it was done entirely without appropriate public environmental review as required by CEQA.

WHY THE WINTERS PUTAH CREEK PARK RESTORATION PROJECT HAS FAILED - Riparian stream and creek realignments have been successfully used to restore habitat in a few Northern California rivers in broad, comparatively flat riparian river floodplains that were previously dredged for gold in the late 1800s to early 1900s. These projects used the original cobble material dredged from the river as fill to restore the river to its natural “pre-dredged” alignment. Many of these projects have proved reasonably successful in removing invasive vegetative species and functionally improving riparian habitat for all wildlife species.

Unfortunately Putah Creek lacks such a broad floodplain and dredged cobble to move back into the channel to restore the floodplain. It is a deeply incised U-shaped channel which lacked any naturally occurring material from the original floodplain to reshape it. In the first 2 of the 3-planned phases of the Winters Putah Creek project, bulldozers stripped virtually the entire floodplain of all vegetation, both native and non-native, from bank to bank. Then instead of restoring original creek contours with naturally occurring cobble and floodplain materials, over 70,000 cubic yards of fill was excavated from distant ancient sterile sediments which lacked the mineral and organic material needed for successful riparian plant growth. This fill was deposited in a layer from 2 to 15 ft thick over the original floodplain and further mechanically compacted. It then quickly hardened into an adobe brick-like material.

Because neither water, air, nor roots could penetrate this impervious layer to allow new plant growth, thousands of native seedlings intended to reestablish the previously destroyed riparian forest were planted by great volunteer effort year-after-year only to die within the first 12-18 months. Now the only native riparian vegetation in the new floodplain area occurs immediately adjacent to the new artificial Creek channel. Virtually all the rest of the highly disturbed floodplain is vegetated exclusively by extensive swaths of invasive grasses and herbaceous weeds like Bermuda grass, Italian rye-grass, cockle bur, and star thistle.

And, because all of the natural pools providing habitat and shelter for a variety of native fish were destroyed by the projects, fish populations plummeted in the Putah Creek sections affected by the project. Additionally, mammalian species like river otter, beaver, and mink that once thrived in the floodplain’s former slow-moving pools were driven out to other undisturbed sections of the Creek. The destroyed pools also formerly provided critical habitat for Western Pond Turtle, a listed species specifically protected in the Yolo Habitat Conservancy’s recently completed HCP/NCCP (Habitat Conservation Plan/Natural Communities Conservation Plan).

Further, calculations from the SCWA’s own Creek flow data confirm that up to 4,000 acre-ft/year of groundwater recharge through the formerly porous floodplain has almost completely stopped because of the impervious hard-pan deposited by the project. This loss of aquifer replenishment jeopardizes the well water availability upon which the City of Winters and local farmers depends.

From any objective perspective, the first 2 phases of the project were failures and, without extensive mitigation, it is doubtful that the floodplain can ever recover from these adverse impacts.  Now, the 3rd phase of the Winters project will be commencing soon with plans to use the same failed methods. And, like the first two phases of the project, this is again planned to be done without any additional public environmental review as required by CEQA.

WHY FRIENDS OF PUTAH CREEK OPPOSES THIS PROJECT - Friends of Putah Creek is resolved that further extreme alteration of the Creek using disproved methods and without environmental review cannot continue unchallenged. This has resulted in the filing of this lawsuit demanding that proper environmental review of this 3rd phase of the Winters Putah Creek project and another immediately downstream be performed as required by California law.

Friends of Putah Creek wholeheartedly supports removal of invasive plant species, replanting with native species, and improved public access to the Creek, including handicap access. We support judicious and selective improvement of salmon spawning habitat. We also strongly support the continued stable water flows into the Creek from Monticello Dam resulting from litigation with the SCWA 15 years ago as it has clearly improved Creek health.

But we do NOT support wholesale bulldozing of the Creek’s mature riparian habitat and its radical realignment based on speculative, unproven assumptions that put its ecological health at risk. We believe thorough scientific evaluation of Phases 1 and 2 project failures would result in complete stoppage of geomorphological engineering of the Creek. Radically changing the natural shape of the channel is misguided and destructive to the environmental health of Putah Creek.

We look forward to our day in court.

FOR MORE INFORMATION - A copy of the Brief filed on behalf of Friends of Putah Creek and a Case Study detailing the shortcomings and poor functional results of the Winters Putah Creek Park project are available on request or by visiting


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