Some of you may have noticed the changes afoot in and around the orange grove down at the Ventura River Preserve. I’ve got the inside scoop from Restoration Stud Brian Stark:1. What were the origins of this project? The idea really started with previous staff members like Stevie Adams, Rich Handley, and Executive Director Jim Engle. They saw a possibility for undoing the damage to the creek and did a lot of legwork in setting up the vision. It took many years as the Conservancy went through several potential funding sources and project designs. We finally arrived at the magic combination of funding, designs, and permits this past year to make it a go. Sometimes projects just take many years to get done, but it’s great when we get to see it done.
2. How do you picture the original state of Rice Creek? No one alive today really knows what the Creek looked like. My guess is that it looked much like the upper Rice Creek area in size and shape, but probably had a slightly different vegetation makeup. The restoration site has a different solar aspect than the rest of the stream, so it probably was dominated by coast live oak and a mix of coastal sage scrub plants. The lower remnant channel gives us some hints, but it too is hiding from the sun in a deeper overall channel. When and why was it changed? The creek was re-routed into an artificial channel and dropped off a cliff into the Ventura River sometime in the 1920’s. The purpose was to plant the orange orchard, the remains of which are slowly dying and being removed. Of course, this was all done 40-50 years before the Clean Water Act, which would have prevented this damage. Back then though, Ojai was much different and sparsely populated. I suspect that people had a different cultural interpretation of the value of stream habitats. They may have seen this s a minor impact in light of the vastness of wild habitats at the time. I think people value these habitats more today. It probably goes back to the old adage “you don’t know what you’ve lost till it’s gone. Why do you feel it is important to change it back? In some respects, restoration of streams like this is an expression of our own cultural appreciation for stream habitats. With this project, we have the opportunity to do something that’s very rare. Usually, a diverted stream is moved forever. There is some sense of novelty. The long-term importance really has to do with replacing a fraction of the 95% of California wetlands that have been lost to past decisions. With such a fractured distribution of available habitats for fish and wildlife associated with wetlands, it is critical that we create it anywhere we can.3. Can you tell us about some of the architectural highlights of the work that was accomplished? OK, I’ll go easy on the Jargon. Ideally, we would have been able to use the historic route of the creek as it turned from the canyon to traverse the terrace (Orange grove). That would have carried the creek in its true historic route. Unfortunately, or maybe fortunately, that area is now colonized by mature oak trees. They were too valuable to remove, so we had to shift the location of the main bend in the stream and exaggerate the arc in the stream to get it to join its historic route. This didn’t really create any more work though, and we would have had to engineer the bend anyway. Thus, we blew through a stand of non-native pepper trees instead of the oaks and I really like the way it came out. The project is still new, so the rocks used to protect the slope at the bend look a bit harsh. They will weather with time and vegetation will establish in the lower parts of the channel, so the aesthetics should improve with time. 4. What do you picture will occur during the first good rainstorm we get? It will probably take a number of storms to get Rice Creek to flow again. It has been so dry for so long that the upper parts of the drainage really need to saturate before we will see much run-off and flow. There is always a chance that in any given year the site will experience high flows. This was all considered in the design phase of the project where computer models were used to model the flow rates under different storm scenarios. What we get from these models are estimates of flow volume, rate, and erosion capacity. These factors are influenced by the severity of the storms, but also the vegetation and soil characteristics of the site and the larger watershed. Worst case scenarios if something goes wrong? If all heck breaks loose, my guess is that the worst that would happen is that the orange grove gets good and flooded for a while. Since we have no costly infrastructure out there, little is at risk of during a flood. It’s possible that some of the plants we’ve installed could be ripped out, but this could happen any time and is just part of nature. If it happens this year, we’ll fix it, but in the future, any disturbance is likely to be limited in extent and the stream should recover naturally. 5. What plants are you using in this project? We’re going with a hybrid plant palette that mixes riparian (stream) plants with coastal sage scrub. The location and solar aspect leave the site in full sun all year, so some of the tree species you find mainly in canyons, like cottonwoods and willows, probably won’t do well here. The main tree species on the stream will one-day be the coast live oak. This is the case in most of the Ojai Valley except in steeper canyons and at the foot of north-facing slopes. The bread and butter pioneer plants like coyote brush and mule fat will be the anchors for the first few years, along with mule fat and buckwheat. We’ve added some sages to the mix as well. As the project matures, the longer-lived species such as holly-leaf cherry and laurel sumac will express themselves more, and finally the trees (live oak and sycamore). There are a number of other species in the mix as well as diversity is our best hedge against the failure of any one or two species. Any notable successes or failures so far? So far the mule fat is rockin’ it, but we’d expect that…no surprise. Laurel sumac has been tough since all of last year’s plants froze to death. They are establishing on their own throughout the area though, so we’ll try again to get them established. Buckwheat has really done well out there and I think it adds a subtle beauty to the place. 6. What work still has to be done? All that is left to do is finish the planting. We have two seasons of planting planned for the site. This year we will replant the newly modified sections of the stream, as well as begin revegetation of the remnant channel downstream of the new road crossing. That will take about 4,000 plants this year. Next year we will work on widening the planting areas throughout the site and adding some species that we have held off on while we wait for the pioneer species to establish themselves. These may include blackberries and toyon. What is the fate of the orange trees? The long range plan is to remove most of them. We have funding to remove 6 acres of them soon, but are waiting to clear some bureaucracy before being authorized to spend the funds. We hope to get on this soon. There are still about 3,000 trees out there, so it is quite an undertaking to remove them.