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1994 Oil Spill Leads to Unique Partnership to Restore California Watershed

Date Posted: March 27, 2009

A 1994 oil spill into one of the last free-flowing rivers in Southern California had an unexpected silver lining. After 190,000 gallons of oil spilled into the Santa Clara River from a pipeline that ruptured during the Northridge earthquake, a $7.1 million settlement was reached to restore areas that had been degraded from the spill. Still, what lay ahead was the daunting task of how to best allocate the money for restoration projects.

A Trustee Council was formed consisting of representatives from U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the California Department of Fish and Game. Early in the development of the restoration plan, the Council was approached by California State Coastal Conservancy (CCC) to gain funding for a planned Santa Clara River Parkway project. Then, the Nature Conservancy (TNC) selected the Santa Clara River as one of its priorities for land protection and conservation. Thus began a partnership between the Council, the CCC, and TNC to bring the river and its wetland and riparian areas back to their original state, and protect them for future generations. That partnership still thrives today.

The Council-which has the responsibility and authority to plan, develop and implement restoration projects within the entire 1,600 square-mile Santa Clara River watershed- established a grant agreement with TNC for the expenditure of up to $4 million on the acquisition of land along the Santa Clara River. Two properties have been purchased with oil spill funds, totaling approximately 450 acres of riparian and river bottom habitat. State bond money has been available for land acquisition as well. Thus far, these funds have purchased approximatley 2,400 acres along the Santa Clara River, all owned by TNC.

The acquisition of land is important to protect and restore the natural corridor of the Santa Clara River, along with providing habitat for various species of special concern, including the unarmored three-spine stickleback and least Bell's vireo, two of the federally endangered species impacted by the oil spill.

The Council has funded several other grants to either TNC or CCC including a steelhead assessment study, the development of an upper and lower watershed habitat protection plan and a vegetation classification and mapping project. The CCC has sponsored a science workshop and developed a Santa Clara River Parkway website that facilitates the sharing of information among the various stakeholders and the public at large. The purpose of the Parkway project is to acquire, restore and protect lands along the Santa Clara River that are threatened by development. The initial phase includes the lower portion of the river, from the mouth to the City of Santa Paula.

The CCC donated land to a local non-profit, Friends of the Santa Clara River, where various habitat restoration activities-funded by the Council-are underway, in addition to the establishment of a volunteer-stewardship program.

There is support by the Council, CCC and TNC for the establishment of a University of California Reserve along the Santa Clara River, to serve as a research and study area, along with providing educational opportunities and on-the-ground habitat restoration. The Council is also involved with CCC, TNC and other stakeholders in the establishment of an upper Santa Clara River watershed land trust, in order for a local conservancy to take on the responsibilities and stewardship of lands acquired for restoration and long-term protection. Finally, there will be future acquisitions using Council funds that remain from the existing grant agreement with TNC.

The Council's partnership with the CCC and TNC has been very fortuitous in facilitating the Council's efforts above and beyond what could have been done without the Conservancies. Their added conservation planning, realty expertise, and funding allowed for a much broader vision of what is possible in a watershed when collaborative efforts are merged in a true partnership benefitting the public and the natural resources as a whole.

Denise Steurer, 805-644-1766 ext 339

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Ventura Fish and Wildlife Office

Last updated: June 12, 2015