Collaboration and strategic land repurposing: An interview with Julie Rentner, President of River Partners

Most of California’s Central Valley is dedicated to productive and diverse farmland, helping make California the country’s fruit, nut, and vegetable basket. However, due in part to increasingly intense and variable climate conditions, we must manage agricultural landscapes to ensure productivity and reliance for future generations.  The 2,100-acre Dos Rios Ranch Preserve near Modesto is an inspiring example of how marginal farmland can be reimagined to support sustainable agriculture. It also serves as a model to create an abundance of new community and environmental benefits, similar to the types of projects that will be funded by California’s new Multibenefit Land Repurposing Program, a program that incentivizes landowners to voluntarily repurpose land to support long-term water sustainability in the Central Valley. Furthermore, the organization has planted over 350,000 native trees and vegetation, restored 8 miles of riverfront land, and created nearly 250 jobs — an overall success for the area’s ecosystems and economy. The Ranch provides a multitude of new uses, building biodiversity, recreational, climate resilience, cultural, and flood control benefits while improving the health and stability of our water systems which are the backbone of our economy.

Photo Credit: River Partners

We asked Julie Rentner, President of River Partners, to sit down with EDF to discuss the Preserve’s beginnings and journey from irrigated cropland to one of the state’s most significant and largest private-public floodplain restoration projects.

Can you tell us about the origins of the Dos Rios Ranch Preserve project?

The Dos Rios Ranch Preserve began with the catastrophic flood of 1997 — historically one of the largest floods in the Central Valley. Unfortunately, the flood broke 17 levees, leaving many landowners in the area frustrated by extensive flooding and damaged property. One ranching family, the Lyons, previously owned flood-prone land along the San Joaquin River near Modesto. They decided to put their property to another use with a vision to inspire collaborative conservation and wildlife habitat preservation. Several years later, with a similar concept, River Partners came into the picture and purchased Dos Rios Ranch in partnership with the Tuolumne River Trust and several local, state and federal funding partners.

When we started restoring Dos Rios Ranch, we had a somewhat narrow perspective about what we thought would be a human-beneficial use for the land: first, initially focusing on lowering flood risk while creating wildlife habitat for threatened and endangered wildlife. Over time, though, River Partners expanded partnerships to include other conservation areas. This was when we started to learn about additional collaborative multi-benefit floodplain restoration that could be introduced on the Ranch. Then, we soon found ourselves working alongside people and communities from diverse sectors. Naturally, those partners started incorporating their ideas with our vision for the land. It developed into what you see today, a project that includes a variety of notable benefits. This provides habitat for many imperiled species such as salmon, the riparian brush rabbit, riparian woodrat, Swainson’s hawk, steelhead trout, least Bell’s vireo, yellow warbler, sandhill crane, and a suite of neo-tropical migratory songbirds.

In transforming the property, River Partners collaborated with the California Indian Basketweavers’ Association and Tuolumne Band of Me-Wuk Indians to grow a unique Native Use Garden. The garden provides regional Tribes access to a variety of hard-to-find native plants used for a variety of cultural practices, such as basket weaving.

One of the major successes of the Dos Rios Ranch Preserve is the many different benefits it provides to the community and ecosystem. Can you share more about how this project helps address increasingly severe droughts and other water challenges exacerbated by climate change?

Over the years, Dos Rios Ranch flooded quite a bit, and we needed to find out how much of that water was sinking into the ground and replenishing the aquifer. However, it was not until we met researchers from Stanford University who study groundwater recharge that we could learn about this problem. Their science helps us identify the best sites for recharge projects, allowing surface water to replenish the region’s aquifer and address drought challenges.

Through collaboration, we have been able to think about all of our ecosystem restoration work over the years as something that thrives from engagement.

The community designed and implemented this project because including multiple visions has always been the secret sauce to a successful project.

For example, we are now implementing a Central Valley Chinook salmon project with the San Joaquin River National Wildlife Refuge, located adjacent to Dos Rios Ranch, that utilizes the watershed to study the growth of juvenile fish. Projects like this emerged from a collaborative process, benefitting from groundwater recharge and the conversation of once-irrigated farmland to a non-irrigated riparian forest that conserves thousands of acre-feet of water yearly.

Photo Credit: River Partners

What were a few of the biggest challenges of this project?

When implementing a collaborative project, navigating different perspectives and opinions on how the land should be used is one of our more significant challenges. A productive and inclusive conversation between partners is how we make sustainable changes to the landscapes. Sometimes, there are conflicts with different visions for the project’s direction, but we navigate those conflicts in dialogue. Building trust between our partners allows us to find a guiding north star toward one common goal that benefits the collective.

Can you talk about some of the other benefits of the project?

The Central Valley is very park-starved, and River Partners always thought the community would appreciate having this space to recreate in a managed way. With this potential future use in mind, we started writing our funding agreements to ensure we didn’t preclude future public access and carefully considered developing walking trails.

Coincidentally, the California Department of Parks and Recreation and Governor Newsom selected Dos Rios Ranch Preserve to become the newest addition to the California state park system this past year. We were just waiting for that! So, if successful, the ranch will become the first state park in California in 13 years.

What were the most important lessons learned that would apply to other Multibenefit Land Repurposing Projects?

Leaving the door open for new ideas and being flexible made the project successful. This is thanks to our public-private partnerships, a mix of local, state, and national entities, that allow us to be nimble and welcoming of new ideas and partners.

Our trustworthy and reliable partnerships, especially with the Lyons family, are an important driving factor keeping this project moving forward. There are only a few places in the Central Valley where you have a well-connected, multi-generational farming family willing to give years of time, energy, and creative thinking to improve the landscape sustainably.

What has made the Dos Rios Ranch project such a success is that partners have stuck with us through many ups and downs for the benefit of future generations. We still believe that this preserve is a vital conservation property; important for wildlife, essential for water, and important for people.


*To learn more about The Dos Rios Ranch Preserve, please visit their website.  You can also find more information on California’s Multibenefit Land Repurposing Program website.

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