Adopt-a-trestle in the Yolo Bypass

Davis Senior High School at Yolo Bypass Wildlife Area
SLEWS Program | Sacramento Valley | December 10, 2019

Participating School
Davis Senior High School

Yolo County Resource Conservation District
Yolo Basin Foundation

Allie Igwe, UCD Graduate Student
Brian Keegan, Sacramento State Graduate Student
Randy Wittorp
Xerónimo Castañeda, Conservation Project Associate, Audubon CA

Summary of the Day
“What’s it near?”

When people ask this question about the Yolo Bypass Wildlife Area SLEWS project, I just don’t know what to tell them! Located about 30 minutes south of the highway 80 Yolo causeway on gravel and dirt roads, this site is about as remote as it gets for SLEWS projects. First on the list of “to do’s” for this project was figuring out a way to get 35+ students, teachers, mentors, and project partners to the correct site. For all you bypass hunters out there, we needed to meet at parking lot M – the furthest from 80 – so we met mentors and parent drivers at the Yolo Basin Foundation Headquarters to start the caravan. There was lots of birds to see on the bumpy ride – I spotted Sandhill Cranes, Northern Harriers, White-tailed Kites, coots and lots of waterfowl like Northern Shovelers and Northern Pintails. We were lucky this time that the road was only somewhat wet and muddy – we may not be so lucky after a few winter storms!

The Yolo Bypass is a manmade system of weirs that diverts floodwater away from the Sacramento River and thus prevents the city of Sacramento from flooding during the rainy season. As you can imagine, this means that some years the bypass is under water.

What happens to bypass wildlife in these years? Well, the water usually comes in from the east and moves west, so they may be able to move west before their home is underwater. And if they don’t? Well, there used to be a railroad spanning the bypass, and the “trestles” that once elevated the tracks are still present. During flood events, these become the only islands of dry land – drones have captured photographs of animals like coyotes, deer, and rabbits stuck on these small land masses. The problem is these trestles aren’t high quality habitat – and that’s where we come in!

Yolo County Resource Conservation District has planned a project to vegetate these trestles, creating wildlife corridors in the bypass. They’ve chosen plants that not only provide food and cover for sheltering wildlife but of course are flood-tolerant as well.

After arriving and enjoying breakfast, students heard all this and more from Martha Ozonoff, the Executive Director of the Yolo Basin Foundation and Alex Tremblay, Project Manager from Yolo County Resource Conservation District. Then it was time to divide into mentor groups and get started!

This project is unique in that each mentor group is tackling a single railway trestle over the course of three field days. On this day, the project task was to install a drip irrigation system to support the plants we’ll plant on the second and third field days. Each mentor group was shown an example – three parallel lines of irrigation along the entire mound, connected to a perpendicular line – before setting off to complete their own system. Groups had to problem solve to make the system work for their particular trestle. One group had to navigate around a large mound in the middle of their trestle, while others had to avoid rocky trestle sides. Once the line had been spooled out, students installed 100 emitters on the lines. Next time we’ll be planting native shrubs alongside these emitters, which will ensure they have water when the bypass is dry. One group was so dedicated to caring for their trestle that they picked up trash to clean it up before their next visit!

After lunch, students interviewed the mentors to learn about their education and career paths, as well as getting to know them better for the field days to follow. To close out the day, we shared our favorite moments of the day. This group was really interested in wildlife and mentioned finding deer antlers and even a dead opossum and coot!

Looking forward to our next Field Day on January 7th!

A day of irrigation along two creeks

Winters High School at Putah Creek Dry Creek Confluence
SLEWS Program | Sacramento Valley | November 1, 2019

Participating School
Winters High School

Yolo County Resource Conservation District
Valerie Whitworth and Michael Barbour

Corey Shake, Partner Biologist, Point Blue Conservation Science, NRCS
Josh McCabe, Restoration Coordinator at ACRT Pacific
Lea Pollack, UCD Graduate Student
Marisa Alcorta, Apprenticeship Program Manager, Center for Land-Based Learning

Summary of the Day
Our second Sac Valley SLEWS day of the year brought us to the confluence of Putah Creek and Dry Creek in Winters, CA. Landowners Michael Barbour and Valerie Whitworth have been working with Yolo County Resource Conservation District to plan a habitat restoration project in an area that was damaged by fire in October 2018. This will increase biodiversity in the area as well as provide habitat for pollinators and the wildlife of the creek. We were happy to involve Winters High School students with this project, walking distance from their school!

After students arrived on foot and enjoyed breakfast, we gathered in our opening circle to introduce ourselves and the project goals, and learn names with a round of group juggle. From there Amy Williams of Yolo County Resource Conservation District led us towards the creek to teach us about a very important plant – blue elderberry. There are special rules and protective measures surrounding this plant. Why? It is the only host plant for the Valley Elderberry Longhorn Beetle, a federally protected species of insect. Its habitat has been greatly reduced due to agriculture and urban development. To protect the beetle, the blue elderberry plant is protected from disturbance, trimming, and removal. Our project site has a sizeable elderberry shrub in the middle of it, so we took extra precautions to make sure it was not damaged during our work.

To start our project, we had to move a bunch of brush that was in the way of our project site. Though there was a sizeable amount of cut branches, students and mentors made extremely short work of it. Next the entire class gathered together to lay out the longest irrigation line. This is a group effort – students space themselves about 20 feet apart and carry the line all the way to the end as the spool of irrigation tubing unspools. One this line was “stapled” down, students got in their mentor groups to divide and conquer.

One group worked on installing emitters on existing oak trees, another created a “grid” of irrigation for the pollinator meadow, and the other two groups laid out 3 more lines of irrigation in the main planting area, taking care around the elderberry of course. By lunch time, students had installed 2500 feet total of irrigation and installed 280 emitters!

Once we were done eating, we ventured down to Putah Creek where Amy and mentor (and biologist!) Corey Shake talked about the significance of the creek and the wildlife that calls it home – especially spawning salmon! We even saw some wildlife of our own on the field day including western fence lizards, a fuzzy caterpillar, beetles, and birds. After exploring the creek, students found a quiet spot to sit and reflect on their first field day in a field journal. This low energy activity was probably a welcome end to the day – a mentor’s fitbit tracked that we walked 4 miles while working throughout the field day, not even counting the students’ walk to and from school!

Wind and rice and everything nice

Florin High School at River Garden Farms
SLEWS Program | Sacramento Valley | October 29, 2019

Participating School
Florin High School

Yolo County Resource Conservation District
River Garden Farms

Colin Fagan, Lab Assistant, Williams Lab
Dana Stokes
Miles Daprato, Environmental Steward for UCD Campus Planning and Environmental Stewardship Department
Nick Gallagher, Rangeland Management Specialist, USDA
Ryan Bixenmann

Summary of the Day
On Tuesday, October 29th, the Sacramento Valley SLEWS season began! Florin High students made the journey to River Garden Farms in Knights Landing for the third year in a row. This time, rather than planting hedgerows alongside a levee road, students gathered in the middle of a walnut orchard. Powerlines above the orchard make a strip of land unsuitable for trees. River Garden Farms saw this as an opportunity to create a corridor of native vegetation to increase biodiversity and provide habitat for wildlife and pollinators. Yolo County Resource Conservation District helped plan the project – 5 parallel rows of plants, with the outer two being mostly deergrass and the inner 3 being native shrubs and vegetation. The irrigation line was already in place, and students would be tackling the rest of the project.

After warming up with hot cocoa and breakfast, we got familiar with each other’s names with a game of group juggle. Alex Tremblay of Yolo County Resource Conservation District introduced the group to the project and the task of the day – removing flags where there would not be plants, and installing emitters and spaghetti tubing onto the irrigation line. Students divided into their mentor groups and tackled the project at hand, despite very windy conditions. Much to everyone’s amusement, the hot pink irrigation poker tools that Alex initially made fun of turned out to be the best tool for the job and were highly sought after!

Though it was windy and sometimes challenging to access the irrigation lines through the weedy overgrowth, students had incredibly positive attitudes throughout the morning and it was truly a joy spending time with them. Some mentor groups even came up with team names to stay motivated – I believe I heard one group call themselves “the Scarlet Dragons”.

After lunch, students boarded the bus to make their way to River Garden Farms’ Tyndall Mound Warehouse. Warehouse Manager Joe took showed students how they weigh and sample shipments as they head out on the trucks before leading us on a tour of the rest of the facility. The highlight was DEFINITELY the warehouse – students were able to climb and play in an enormous warehouse full of loose, unhulled, dry rice! The rice drying machine was also fascinating – rice slowly travels downward over many, many stories as airflow helps it to dry out. 

We had to end the day in a hurry to get students back to school on time so we went around our closing circle to share just one word to describe the day. What was by far the most popular word? FUN!