Eye in the Sky: Documenting California Post-Flood Conditions

This past winter, California received record precipitation following five long years of drought. We teamed up with LightHawk to get an aerial view of how our San Joaquin flood management projects are holding up – from the air.

San Joaquin River | LightHawk

This past winter, California received record precipitation following five long years of drought. Central Valley rivers, especially the San Joaquin, saw water levels not seen in nearly a decade, putting a deteriorating flood control system to the test. Luckily, there were no catastrophic levee failures, but there were several smaller breaches and plenty of erosion throughout the system, including along several tributaries. It was also a chance to see how new flood management approaches would perform under persistent flood conditions.

Over the last decade, American Rivers and many other conservation nonprofits have been working together with state agencies, levee districts, and farmers to reshape the flood management paradigm in America’s bread basket – California’s Central Valley. “Multi-Benefit Flood Management,” as it is being called, relies on using nature-based solutions such as restoring and reconnecting floodplains to reduce flood risk while also providing additional benefits like habitat for endangered fish and wildlife, recreational opportunities, and groundwater recharge.

This approach is not really new though – California’s system of flood bypasses are an example of one type of multi-benefit flood management. The Yolo Bypass takes diverted flood water from the Sacramento River and spreads it out over 60,000 acres of floodplain and farm land to the West of Sacramento. This protects the city and its inhabitants and also provides critical floodplain habitat for threatened fish and wildlife. And in years that it doesn’t flood, its rich soils are farmed, much of it in rice production. Reconnecting and restoring floodplains that are directly connected to rivers (unlike flood bypasses), like American River’s project at Great Valley Grasslands State Park along the San Joaquin River, are another way to achieve multiple benefits while reducing flood risk.

American Rivers, funded by the Wildlife Conservation Society’s Climate Adaptation Fund, is working to help the California Department of Water Resources (DWR) improve and expand the Yolo Bypass to provide more frequent inundation of this critical floodplain habitat while reducing flood risk for Sacramento and other downstream communities. As part of this grant, American Rivers is also conducting an outreach campaign to help promote multi-benefit flood management and floodplain restoration throughout the Central Valley. We realized that high quality compelling imagery of completed projects, projects in planning stages, and floodplains in action were missing from our campaign. So we tasked ourselves with creating an image archive that could be used indefinitely by us and our partners for advocacy and outreach for years to come.

In order to document conditions along the San Joaquin River following an epic winter and collect stock imagery of the San Joaquin River for the image archive, American Rivers teamed up with LightHawk, a nonprofit that accelerates conservation through the powerful perspective of flight. Pilots volunteer their planes and time to fly missions that create new imagery, collect data, or inform the public about some of our environment’s most pressing issues. This work could not have been done without LightHawk and their volunteer pilots, who fill a critical gap that is often hard to fund.

Back in June, I met up with Bill Rush, one of LightHawk’s dedicated volunteer pilots, for a flight along the San Joaquin River. Bill lives in the Santa Cruz mountains and volunteers for LightHawk, Flying Doctors, and Baja Communidad. As a photographer, I knew I couldn’t pass up this opportunity even though I have a fear of flying. During the 2-hour flight, we followed the river from Stockton to Mendota and back up again. Luckily, the pilot’s many years of experience, combined with the fact that I was intently focused on what was 2,000 feet below me, resulted in a smooth and productive flight.

Though it was June, the river was still relatively high (around 5,000 cubic feet per second) – high enough to see a few activated floodplains, but low enough to see impacts from the high flows that were endured for many months. Smaller levee breaches were clear in some areas (notice the beautiful sand patterns on farm fields in some of the photos), and other areas were still green and vibrant even though it was nearing mid-summer. I was also able to document several completed floodplain restoration projects and ones in planning stages that are being led by American Rivers and its partners. Overall, the flight provided invaluable imagery and data on the San Joaquin River after one of the wettest winters in recent years.

Given projected impacts to rivers due to climate change – increased frequency of wetter winters and drier summers – the imperative for more resilient approaches to water and flood management are more important than ever. By working with nature, instead of against it, we can improve the resiliency of California’s water infrastructure to more extreme floods and droughts.

  • The existing Paradise Cut Flood Bypass, used to divert extreme high flows, can be seen as the narrow green corridor coming off the San Joaquin River and traversing farm fields. American Rivers is working with the California Department of Water Resources and other partners to expand the footprint of the bypass to reduce flood risk for downstream communities such as Manteca, Stockton, and Lathrop, as well as provide additional seasonal wetland habitat.

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