Assigning value to California's vast wilderness

We're helping the state restore a key river and delta ecosystem

Sierra meadows store and filter water for California cities and farms.

Sierra meadows store and filter water for California cities and farms.

Photo credit: Mathew Grimm

In California, EDF is quantifying the economic value of threatened ecosystems and finding investors, like utilities, who will benefit from their restoration. Our goal is to develop a national model for saving irreplaceable natural resources.

A big vintage

Amid the great farms of California's Central Valley lies the Mokelumne River, which supplies 90% of the water for 1.3 million people around Oakland and Berkeley.

Extensive riverside forests—long lost to agriculture and development—once flourished here. Forest loss made the water too warm for salmon in places and caused erosion that sent sediment into the river, harming downstream habitat.

Today, EDF is working with winegrowers to restore the river’s ecosystem.

Our goal is to restore riverside habitat in ways that are compatible with thriving agriculture.

Ann Hayden Ann Hayden Senior Program Manager


Chris Storm is sustainability manager at Vino Farms, near Lodi, CA, which raises 4,300 acres of grapes. He is preserving wildlife habitat while increasing profits. “Growing wine is about telling a story,” he says. “This is ours.”

California grapes

Winegrowers, who have a reputation for being environmentally progressive, are working with EDF to rebuild habitat.

Photo by: Mathew Grimm.

Today, cottonwoods, ash and box elders flourish along Vino’s riverbank, attracting some 60 bird species such as Swainson’s hawks. Hedgerows planted between grape varieties teem with beneficial insects like parasitic wasps, which reduce the need for pesticides.

“This is better for the ecosystem and it’s better for the bottom line,” says Storm. In fact, winemakers are paying Vino a premium for sustainable production.

“EDF is helping us see the benefit of replanting the riverbanks,” says Storm. “The alternative—a flat monoculture—benefits no one except the chemical companies.”

There’s carbon in them thar lowlands

Journey’s end for the Mokelumne is the Sacramento–San Joaquin Delta. The 1,150-square-mile Delta, once a vast wetland, has been drained for agriculture. This has caused the land to subside so severely that entire cities, including Sacramento, are now in danger of flooding.

California Delta

A bird's eye view of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Bay Delta, the hub of California's water supply system.

Photo by: Mathew Grimm.

The Delta could be rescued by its ability to store carbon, an ecosystem service that will become highly valued now that California has launched a cap-and-trade market for carbon dioxide. This market could enable state industries to offset part of their global warming pollution by paying Delta farmers to literally “grow” wetlands.

The state has committed $2 million to launch Delta partners first pilot carbon storage projects. We're also working to improve flood control and habitat for 300 animal species in the Delta.

The next step: Valuing ecosystems

The key to reviving California’s riverside forests and wetlands is to create a market to finance their restoration. EDF and our partners are developing tools to measure the economic value of these ecosystems and attracting investors, like utilities and municipalities, to finance their restoration.