South of Mather Airport is a grassy field popular with nature lovers and school field trips, particularly in the spring when the vernal pools are in bloom.
Habitats such as this one could help developers mitigate environmental impacts from construction in South Sacramento if the county adopts the South Sacramento Habitat Conservation Plan.
The plan covers some 370,000 acres south of Highway 50 in Sacramento County. It takes a regional approach to setting aside wetlands, marshes and grassland to form a preserved habitat for 40 species of plants and wildlife, including Swainson’s hawks, greater sandhill cranes and fairy shrimp.
It would also streamline permits for developers requiring “incidental take” approvals with state and federal regulators. The conservation plan has been in the pipeline for 15 years, but the first complete draft is expected this fall.
“It’s all about approaching conservation in a more thoughtful manner” than setting aside property piecemeal, says Leighann Moffitt, a principal planner with Sacramento County. The county is partnering with the cities of Rancho Cordova, Galt and Elk Grove as well as the Sacramento Regional County Sanitation District and Sacramento County Water Agency to move the plan forward.
“Streamlining the permitting process is key,” says John Hodgson, chair of the conservation plan’s steering committee and president of the Hodgson Co., a land-use advocate for the Folsom Planning Area and Laguna Ridge Specific Plan in Elk Grove. The conservation plan is one of the first to integrate federal permit guidelines, such as those by the Army Corps of Engineers and the Clean Water Act, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Endangered Species Act.
“It needs to be cost-effective, the environmental groups need to be OK with it and the federal agencies need to be OK with what is being protected,” Hodgson says. “We are creating a vehicle that allows responsible development and conservation of species.”
Sean Wirth serves on the conservation committee with Hodgson and says he has reservations. On one hand, with each year that passes without a plan in place, less land is available for conservation, says Wirth, who is also a representative of the Sierra Club and Habitat 2020 as well as a former infill developer. He is particularly concerned about a proposal from Elk Grove to add as many as 10,000 acres to its sphere of influence and similar plans from Galt.
The conservation plan is also under attack from agencies involved in the groundbreaking billion-dollar Freeport Regional Water Project. At 185 million gallons per day, the system can begin supplying Sacramento River water to East Bay Municipal Utility District and Sacramento County Water Agency customers as soon as 2011. It can’t begin supplying new development, however, until a habitat-conservation plan is in place to mitigate the effect. Otherwise, the project would require individual approvals. Once a final draft is issued this fall, the project still has to undergo a full environmental-impact report, which can take a year or longer, Moffit says.
Wirth says a bad plan shouldn’t be adopted in haste. When the draft of the 1,600-page plan is released for comment, he will be looking to see that the financial structure collects enough in fees to pay for the 41,000 acres that will have to be acquired from “willing sellers” over the plan’s 30-year window. He estimates that will require nearly $1 billion.
Unlike the North Natomas Habitat Conservation Plan, which is managed by the Natomas Basin Conservancy and sets aside a half-acre of habitat for every acre of habitat developed, the south Sacramento plan is based on a one-to-one ratio. It could use easements on farming and range land that would be managed to maintain habitat and agricultural uses simultaneously. That would reduce the plan cost, Moffitt says.
A new California Habitat Planning Coalition now pursues federal funding. The group was successful to the tune of $5.5 million for fiscal year 2011, says John Hopkins, vice chair of the conservation plan’s steering committee. He would like to use some of these funds to add 9,000 acres to a managed habitat corridor in South Sacramento.
Farmers, ranchers and environmentalists regularly find themselves on opposing sides of the table when it comes to water discussions. In an ag-heavy state like California, farmers and ranchers are in constant need of water to sustain their crops and animals. Meanwhile, environmental groups are looking to cut consumption in an effort to protect everything from fish to riverbanks and estuaries. And that’s exactly what sets apart the relationship between rice farmers and environmentalists from other agricultural commodities.