In a bucolic little corner on the south eastern edge of Porterville exists a piece of Tule River floodplain that has never felt the till of a plow or the heard the hammering of a nail.
The place is the Yaudanchi Ecological Reserve (YER.)
The reserve is an outdoor classroom for the Porterville public school system and a recreational area for the community.
The 164 acres got their official designation as an ecological reserve in 1975 and was named in honor of a branch of the Yokut tribe that lived in Northern Tulare County.
The state owns the land and the reserve was well managed by the Department of Fish and Wildlife to the satisfaction of all.
So why was Yaudanchi closed?
Gates were locked and signs removed
Laurie Schwaller, a founding member of Friends of the Yaudanchi, was the first to notice there was something amiss. While responding to a Monache High School student’s request to use the reserve for research, Schwaller noticed that the YER had been removed from the Department of Fish and Wildlife’s (DFW) list of ecological reserves.
The mysterious knot began to unravel when she discovered that the Porterville Development Center (PDC,) a state hospital for the disabled, closed the reserve in October of 2017. The state has owned the property since 1945 and built the PDC on the southern end, leaving the northern section that would become the YER untouched.
When Schwaller asked Theresa Billeci, assistant to the Executive Director of PDC, why the reserve was closed she was told “because of a pipeline.”
Schwaller then discovered that Vandalia Water District (VWD) decided to replace the earthen ditch that runs the length of YER with a metal pipe. The pipeline was to be 42″ and 2,602 feet long and would almost completely block the reserve’s access to water.
The reason for piping the ditch was that farmers were losing too much irrigation water to seepage.
According to a statement given to the Porterville Recorder by Steve Drumright, the general manager for Vandalia Water District, “Our desire was to put a pipeline in because it is the old Tule River bottom and it is pure sand and through that 2,660 feet, we’d lose about 13 percent of the overall ditch flow….”
In 1860 the Campbell Moreland Ditch Company dug that ditch and for 159 years the water running through it sustained a Tule River wetlands and natural wildlife habitat that became the lifeblood of the Yaudanchi Ecological Reserve.
The Campbell Moreland Ditch, which is run by VWD, runs from the Tule River to sinking basins and farms south of Porterville.
Once the construction of a pipeline and loss of water seemed inevitable PDC closed the reserve. As a result, the Department of Fish and Wildlife withdrew from their agreement to manage YER, removing all signs, discontinuing all maintenance, and locked up the parking lot.
Friends of the Yaudanchi take action
Learning of the public hearing about building the pipeline with only days to spare, the Friends of Yaudanchi quickly organized a response and presented it to the directors of the VWD and Campbell Moreland Ditch Company.
VWD’s goal was to build the pipeline and avoid the cumbersome and expensive process of doing a complete Environmental Impact Review (EIR). Their Initial Study, completed by 4 Creeks Inc., concluded that the project would not make a major environmental impact, thus an EIR would not be necessary.
But a public hearing is required to give the community an opportunity to respond to the Initial Study before any project on public lands can go forward.
During the public hearing VWD was told that the project would make a major environmental impact and thus they were required to do an EIR. The Sierra Club, Audubon Society, Wildplaces, and the California Native Plant Society claimed that the pipeline would cause irreversible harm.
“The destruction caused by the removal of water from a riparian and upland habitat and the species that depend on that habitat is irrevocable,” Richard Garcia representing the Sierra Club wrote.
The Department of Fish and Wildlife said it “cannot support the(Vandalia Water) District’s support of the project.”
The DFW said the pipeline will, “constitute the project-related loss of wetlands and the Site, the loss of riparian habitat and function, and the potential loss of the mature VELB (Valley Elderberry Long Horned Beetle) occupied blue elderberry bush…Absent sufficient flow from the Ditch, the Department has determined that wetland and riparian habitat values on the YER cannot be mitigated sufficiently to be less than significant and that wildlife that depends on these resource values will be severely compromised and impacted.”
In addition, YER was used by the California Department of Transportation (CALTRANS) to mitigate habitat lost during their project’s construction. CALTRANS used the YER to plant elderberry bushes to replace those they destroyed. The elderberry bushes are the main habitat for the endangered long horned beetle.
The VWD was possibly faced with mitigating the CALTRANS mitigation if they pursued the pipeline.
VWD’s own report said there would be a major environmental impact.
The Initial Study’s biological report commissioned by VWD said, “The Project would essentially remove the majority of the hydrology for the Ditch. However, drainage does occur from adjacent sites. Thus, piping the Ditch would not remove the hydrology entirely. The Ditch would remain open and the pipeline would be sited away from the Ditch and associated wetland and other sensitive habitat.
Pipeline not worth the hassle
Drumright told the Porterville Recorder in July of 2018, “At our last regular Vandalia Board Meeting, we just decided that we would put the project on hold due to the opposition from the environmental community,”
He still maintained that the project would have no environmental impact on the reserve.
Now that the water supply for the reserve had been saved, the Friends of the Yuadanchi wanted to get the recreational area back open to the public, but it hasn’t been a smooth ride.
“In July, we began contacting PDC again, requesting to meet with decision-makers to discuss re-opening and properly managing YER again, now that the pipeline was off the table,” said Schwaller.
It took six months, but on January 4 of this year the Friends of the Yaudanchi secured a meeting with Norm Kramer, of the Director of the Department of Developmental Services (DDS,) PDC’s parent company out of Sacramento.
Attending the meeting were the executives from DDS and PDC, the groups that opposed the pipeline at the VWD Public Hearing, representatives from the Tule River Tribe Council and Porterville Unified School District.
Kramer made clear at their meeting that “he can’t imagine anyone in DDS wanting to do anything with that land.” According to Schwaller he said “We (DDS/PDC) don’t do land. We do patients”
“We would love to see the land used as it has been, but can’t give resources from PDC to do it.”
Kramer emphasized that the Friends of the Yaudanchi would have to do the maintenance, ensure the safety of the public, get their own insurance, and indemnify the state of any liability.
“Put forth a viable option to take PDC off the hook. Make it something good for the community to use,” Schwaller said was Kramer’s suggestion.
On January 28 PDC unlocked the gates and let the Friends of the Yaudanuchi and members of the Tule River Tribe take a tour of the reserve. Though the recreation areas were all grown over and the pond was empty the group was hopeful that it wouldn’t take much funding to bring it back to what it was.
The goal of the group is the removal of invasive plants, refill the pond, maintain the trails, repair the gazebo, restore the signage, open the parking lot and bring back the porta-potties.
From discussion during the tour with Frank Chandler, Chief of Plant Operations for PDC, YER is going to set up tour dates in the spring and possibly create a special use permit between PDC and YER for access to the reserve.
During the meeting with Kramer on January 4 Schwaller asked, “Would DDS/PDC consider turning the YER land over to another agency?”
She reported that Kramer said, “We would be glad to turn it over. Let’s make a deal locally.”
For more information how you can help save the Yaudanchi Ecological Reserve contact: Richard J. Garcia [email protected] To learn more visit Tulare County Treasures at http://www.tularecountytreasures.org/yaudanchi-ecological-reserve.html