The Upper Pajaro River floodplain, about 30 miles south of San Jose, is a region rich in biodiversity due to its proximity to a variety of habitats throughout three coastal mountain ranges: the Santa Cruz, Diablo, and Gabilan ranges. Migrating birds use this floodplain as a resting point along the Pacific flyway, and mammals use the riparian corridors to disperse to critical habitat in the mountains and foothills. This floodplain contains some of California’s most productive agricultural lands, and protection upstream ensures flood protection for communities in the lower floodplain including Pajaro, Watsonville, and local surrounding farms. TNC and other partners identified Gonzales Farm, a 165-acre parcel in the upper floodplain, as critical land to protect for its value as a working farm that occupies a key location along the historic corridor of the Pajaro River.
When TNC purchased the property in 2012, the river corridor was highly degraded and lacked the vegetation needed to provide habitat for animals and birds. Furthermore, its infrastructure could not support a cattle operation or irrigated pasture. A local rancher who was leasing the property for cattle grazing provided design guidance, and then installed new water infrastructure and fencing that allow cattle to use the entire property, including the river corridor when conditions permit. These improvements help ensure that the property can function as an economically viable agricultural operation and also support an ongoing habitat restoration project along the river corridor. Gonzales Farm will continue to be protected under conservation easement that enables ranchers to provide forage for grazing cattle, while also keeping invasive plant species in check and maintaining the agricultural way of life in Santa Clara and San Benito Counties.
Between 2014 and 2017, local students and community members led by STRAW will plant more than 1,200 new plants along the river, including a dozen species of native trees, shrubs, and grasses. This work will create a corridor for wildlife to move between the Santa Cruz, Diablo, and Gabilan mountain ranges. Since 2014, this project has provided over 450 students with environmental education and hands-on habitat restoration opportunities in the Pajaro River watershed. Through their involvement, students and community volunteers learn from experience about how working landscapes and conservation can coexist, and how their individual contributions benefit the floodplain by making it more resilient to changing climate conditions.