Let it flow: In about-face, California breaks and shifts levees to restore natural floodplains

At the confluence of the San Joaquin and Tuolumne rivers, a winter of heavy rains could inundate about 1,200 acres of riverside woodland for the first time in 60 years. That’s by design: Here, a few miles west of Modesto, work crews removed or broke several miles of levee last spring and replanted the land with tens of thousands of native sapling trees and shrubs.

“We are very eager to see what happens when there is some overbank flooding here,” said Julie Rentner, executive vice president of River Partners, a habitat restoration group that is directing the project, known as the Dos Rios Ranch Preserve.

The work, much of it conducted by the California Conservation Corps, comes as the state overhauls its approach toward flood control, with a growing emphasis on reconnecting floodplains to rivers so they can absorb floodwaters. This shift in methodology marks a U-turn from past reliance on levees to protect cities and towns.

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