SBVWCD Launches Habitat Plan Under Rare Safe Harbor Agreement

  • Sep 21, 2020

In a first for the region, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) awarded a  Safe Harbor Agreement to the San Bernardino Valley Water Conservation District (SBVWCD) to temporarily remove the kangaroo rat from its degraded habitat in order to restore it – a  move designed to save the local population. Under the same agreement, an endangered plant, the Santa Ana River woolly star, was cultivated and is being planted in the new habitat area along with other native flora.

The Habitat Conservation Plan is part of a larger project that was more than 20 years in the making and involved the collaboration of area cities, water districts, regulatory agencies and mining agencies seeking to find the best uses for the right land in the Wash.  The 4,800-acre Upper Santa Ana River Wash Plan included a land swap between the U.S. Bureau of Land Management and the San Bernardino Valley Water Conservation District. Federal land policy required a vote of Congress and ratification by the President in 2019 to make that happen.

In short, the plan:

  • Establishes a new “Wash Plan Preserve” with 1,530 acres of native natural habitat to protect threatened species. The preserve will be funded and managed in perpetuity.
  • Allows for enhanced capture and storage of water in rivers and streams to replenish local groundwater supplies.
  • Designates disturbed land areas in the Wash for mining operations that support more than $36 million in construction-related payroll annually to the region.
  • Creates a system of public trails within the Wash to promote public education and appreciation of the value of this natural resource.

This is the first Safe Harbor Agreement awarded in Southern California, and one of just 10 awarded since 2012 in all of California.

“Decades of mining, and the construction of ditches, pipeline crossings, levees and a bridge had cut off water flow and made these species’ home essentially unlivable,” said Daniel Cozad, general manager of the San Bernardino Valley Water Conservation District. “These species typically live in areas of intermittent flooding, and their former habitat no longer provided that.”

The kangaroo rat relocation is part of the Plunge Creek Conservation Project  agreement permitted by the Wash Plan and Habitat Conservation Plan. It calls for:

  • Construction of two pilot channels to reintroduce intermittent flooding necessary to create 208 acres of suitable habitat.
  • Creation of temporary access routes for the kangaroo rat to cross over the new channels
  • Seed collection and revegetation of the new habitat area with woolly star, plus seeding of other native plants such as California buckwheat, desert wishbone bush, mulefat, tarragon, and deerweed.
  • Invasive species control
  • Relocation of the San Bernardino kangaroo rat to the new habitat area
  • Oversight and monitoring by qualified biologists and ecologists
  • Tracking of San Bernardino kangaroo rat for up to 10 years after project implementation to gain a full understanding of long-term project benefits

The $800,000 project was funded in part through a $500,000 California Department of Water Resources grant distributed by the Santa Ana Watershed Protection Agency. The remainder will be paid through the District’s Capital Project Reserve established by the District five years ago in anticipation of the project.

SBVWCD Board President Richard Corneille credited the CDFW with helping to develop a quick solution to the situation, noting that what usually takes years to achieve was completed in a matter of months.

“Our District is focused on working with nature, whether to capture and store water underground, or to preserve local species through habitat restoration,” he said. “We are extremely proud to have reached this agreement, which is unprecedented in Southern California.”