In California farm country, thousands of farm acres are becoming floodplains once again. Conservationists hope to restore the land to what it was 150 years ago—perhaps similar to God’s original design.
Floods create havoc, especially where rivers have been dammed, diverted, or leveed. When barriers break, enormous amounts of water surge through. Severe flooding events can take lives and ruin property. When they don’t break, swollen waterways overflow—too often in areas not able to absorb the extra volume.
In Genesis, God gave the rainbow as a promise that He would remember never to destroy the whole Earth by flood again. He had already made gracious provision for localized flooding: floodplains.
Floodplains are low-lying areas near bodies of water. They allow rivers to expand naturally—and protect against flooding. They also provide rich animal and plant habitats in which both fauna and flora thrive and reproduce.
In the late 1800s, California’s population grew and farming boomed. The government began engineering ways to move water around to allow for more people and farms. Government programs erected levees and other barriers to carve out new spaces.
Levees cut rivers off from their natural floodplains. As a result, those rivers fill faster. But man-made structures are no match for massive floods, which can quickly overwhelm the levees.
In California’s Central Valley, the Tuolumne and San Joaquin rivers meet. More than 250 crops grow there, and many animals and plants call it home.
Two decades ago, some Central Valley farmers decided to rethink how the rivers flowed—or didn’t. Their company, River Partners, began buying land in order to repair and restore California floodplains.
The Dos Rios Ranch Preserve is one such restoration project. The 2,100-acre property was once a dairy. In 2012, owners sold the land to River Partners.
Today, the land is being turned into space where rivers can “breathe.” By notching (making holes in) or removing levees, swelling rivers can flow onto land that no longer needs to be kept dry for farming. That prevents the swollen rivers from overflowing—sometimes catastrophically—elsewhere.
Floodplain restoration isn’t unique to California. Similar projects are underway in Washington state and along the Mississippi River.
Julie Rentner, president of River Partners, says most people agree on the value of restoring floodplains. But concerns about the tax hurdles of converting land from farming to floodplain—and debates about public access to natural habitat areas—can slow progress.
Still, Rentner is hopeful about California floodplain changes. “The whole [area] has endured deep flooding many times in the last 20 years,” she says of the Dos Rios project’s success. “And [the restored floodplain] served as a shock absorber, taking pressure off floodwater further downstream and possibly alleviating levee breaks.” But she adds, “The magnitude of change needed is huge.”
Why? God works in the natural world to glorify Himself for His perfect creation. The creation-fall-redemption cycle is evident in floodplain-farmland-floodplain projects.