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The Odd Couple: EPA’s Clean Water State Revolving Fund and The Nature Conservancy

EPA Loan Helps Nonprofit Preserve Wetlands

by Mark Kemp-Rye
On Tap Managing Editor

A red-shouldered hawk circles overhead as Mike Eaton puts his canoe in the Cosumnes River, in the heart of California’s Great Central Valley. Two or three times a month Eaton comes here to paddle for a few hours after work and soak up the solitude the river affords him. As he drifts past blue oak woodlands and cottonwood trees covered in wild grape vines—near an area known locally as the “Howard Ranch”—he watches a flock of sandhill cranes, searching the riverbank for their dinner.

Photos courtesy of The Nature Conservacy

Photo Caption: “In the Golden State, rivers are supposed to be meager, dusty little things,” writer David Wicinas observes in the September/October issue of the Nature Conservancy newsletter. “But this one—the Cosumnes—looks anything but small, or dry. It sprawls 300 yards wide. Water the color of café latte swirls waist deep between the oaks.”

This pastoral scene never ceases to amaze Eaton; partly because it’s a mere 20 miles from the hustle and bustle of Sacramento (the state capital and a city rapidly approaching two million population), but mostly because, not long ago, the area seemed destined for development. Thanks to the work of Eaton, director of the Nature Conservancy’s Cosumnes River Project, and a host of others including the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), this pristine region will remain as it has for centuries.
“This really is a unique area,” says Eaton. “We’re only a few miles from Interstate 5 here, but, if you were to look around, you might guess you were in the middle of the Louisiana bayou. In places the river is nearly 300 yards wide, which kind of defies the stereotype of a California river.

“The Howard Ranch property is a combination of extensive woodlands of several native species, a productive rangeland, and vernal pools, one-of-a-kind springtime wetlands,” he continues. “And, it’s the only remaining free-flowing river coming out of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Preserving these important watershed lands is absolutely essential to the environmental health of the river and this region.”

Tim Vendlinksi, a life scientist with EPA Region 9, agrees. “Pressures to subdivide and develop farms, ranches, and natural sites on the fringes of metropolitan areas—or to develop new towns entirely from scratch—threaten both the long-term security of our nation’s food supply and the ecological underpinnings of California’s way of life,” he says.

The Cosumnes River Preserve
The Nature Conservancy of California purchased the 12,362-acre Howard Ranch for $13.6 million in April 1999. Funding came from a combination of public and private sources (see below). This purchase is the latest in a series—dating back to 1984 with a modest stand of valley oaks—that brings the Cosumnes River Preserve to approximately 35,000 acres.
Begun in 1993, this plan calls for the Conservancy to incorporate working farmland into the preserve; to establish cooperative arrangements with neighboring landowners, as well as water and flood-control authorities; and to share ownership and management responsibility with the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, Ducks Unlimited, Sacramento County, and the California departments of Water Resources and Fish and Game.

The Nature Conservancy became interested in preserving the Howard Ranch as rangeland in order to mitigate two ongoing threats to the area: conversion to vineyards and future conversion to urban and suburban uses. According to the Nature Conser-vancy’s Web site, “much of the property to the west and south of the ranch has been converted to vineyards over the past three years, using a plowing process (known as “deep ripping”) which destroys the vernal pools and reduces the natural watershed values of the landscape. This in turn eases the way for major housing development in the area.”

In addition to preserving the natural habitat, the Preserve has important implications for the water industry. Drinking water for much of the San Francisco Bay area comes from the Mokelumne River, which joins the Cosumnes near Galt, California. The Nature Conservancy’s preservation efforts also mean that drinking water is protected from agricultural and other pollutants.
“The Howard Ranch purchase and the Cosumnes River Watershed Project will protect critical habitats, open spaces and water quality in one of the state’s most rapidly-growing areas, the Central Valley,” says Steve McCormick, former executive director of The Nature Conservancy of California and now the Conservancy’s national director. “Our partners’ commitment is critical to our California program. With their support, The Nature Conser-vancy can take lands that are wild by nature and preserve them by design.

“Here, as elsewhere in California, explosive growth threatens our remaining natural landscapes,” he continues. “California’s population is expected to increase by almost 50 percent over the next 25 years—that’s as if everyone in New York State were to move here by the year 2025.”

The Nature Conservancy eventually hopes to expand the Cosum-nes River Preserve to include the entire Cosumnes watershed—from the river’s headwaters in the Sierra Nevada Mountains to its terminus near Galt—an area of some 800,000 acres in all.

“We’re only a few miles from Interstate 5 here, but, if you were to look around, you might guess you were in the middle of the Louisiana bayou.”

Mike Eaton, director, Cosumnes River Project

How did this project happen?
“We knew that we couldn’t buy the Howard Ranch property on our own,” says Eaton. “So, we approached the State Water Resources Control Board (SWRCB) to see if they had any suggestions.” They did.
Bill Campbell, supervisor of the SWCRB Watershed Projects Support Section, suggested that the project might be eligible for a clean water state revolving fund (CWSRF) loan. Working with EPA’s Vendlinski, Eaton and the Nature Conservancy began to cobble together a plan which would become the largest land acquisition ever funded by the CWSRF, as well as being the first wetlands preservation project using this fund.

In all, the Howard Ranch purchase came to $13.6 million. Of this amount, the CWSRF supplied an $8 million loan. The remaining funds came from the federal Natural Resources Conservation Service, the State Wildlife Conservation Board, the North American Wetlands Conservation Council, the Packard Foundation, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Bureau of Reclamation (Central Valley Project Improvement Act funds).
Congress created the CWSRF to aid virtually any type of water quality project, including nonpoint source, wetlands, estuary, and other watershed projects. Loans are issued at below market rates (some at zero percent) and may be paid back over as much as 20 years. Nonprofit groups, such as the Nature Conservancy, are eligible to apply for funds.
The Nature Conservancy will repay the CWSRF loan by reselling portions of the Howard Ranch to a private rancher for grazing livestock. Through a strict agricultural easement, the rancher will guarantee that the ecosystem and water quality on the ranch will not be degraded.

What about EPA’s drinking water state revolving fund?
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) clean water state revolving loan fund (CWSRF) was an integral part of the funding for The Nature Conservancy’s Howard Ranch purchase. Can EPA’s drinking water state revolving loan fund (DWSRF) be used for similar purposes?

According to Kimberley Roy, EPA environmental protection specialist, the DWSRF has different stipulations. “The 1996 Safe Drinking Water Act requires that loans for land acquisition or easements be made to public water systems, “ she says. “Therefore, unlike the CWSRF, we do not have the flexibility in our program for states to make loans directly to organizations like The Nature Conservancy. The only thing that states can do is allow nonprofits to be partners in the loan agreements. Alternatively, water systems can make arrangements with the nonprofits to help with monitoring or managing land use activities on the sites.”

One example of this type of arrangement is the Androscoggin Land Trust and the City of Auburn, Maine. To maintain the quality of Lake Auburn—the area’s primary water source—the water district devotes $100,000 annually toward purchasing land, conservation easements, and life estate interests around the lake.

With a DWSRF loan, the district recently purchased an additional 435 acres of shoreline land from a developer for $550,000. Auburn officials see this as a cost-effective alternative to a new filtration plant, estimated at $30 million with an additional $750,00 in yearly operating costs. The Androscoggin Land Trust shares overall easement monitoring responsibilities.
In all, the district now owns or controls more than 800 acres and 70 percent of Lake Auburn’s shoreline.

A Legacy for Future Generations
Funding wetlands projects has been possible under the CWSRF since its inception in 1987. “Based on the serious threats to wetlands resources across the country, EPA would like to see the CWSRF become a major source of funding for wetlands protection,” EPA states in their brochure “Protecting Wetlands with the Clean Water State Revolving Fund.”
However, in spite of total loans of approximately $3 billion each year, wetlands projects, such as the Howard Ranch purchase, are a rarity. “This capacity has yet to be utilized,” EPA’s brochure continues. “We need to make better use of the CWSRF for important wetlands protection projects.”

“California’s population is expected to increase by almost 50 percent over the next 25 years—that’s as if everyone in New York State were to move here by the year 2025.”

Steve McCormick, national director, The Nature Conservancy

“The vast scale of this (Howard Ranch) deal sends a clear message nationwide. By protecting ecosystems we are safeguarding water quality—and the state revolving fund is here to help,” says EPA’s Vendlinski.
“The Howard Ranch purchase fits the Conservancy’s master plan of smart science and savvy economics,” says Eaton. “It will protect water quality, maintain a wildlife-compatible agricultural enterprise, and keep the land on the tax roll—goals which we share with Sacramento County and our agency partners. Everyone wins—cattle ranchers, the public, and the myriad of species which depend on healthy natural systems like the vernal pools and blue oak woodlands of the Howard Ranch.”

In many ways, the work being done in California mirrors the growth and development of the Nature Conservancy organization.
“The Cosumnes River Preserve embodies The Nature Conservancy and the changes it’s going through,” says Rich Reiner, Nature Conservancy ecologist, in the September-/October issue of their newsletter. “Starting with the vision of preserving a single community—an individual stand of oak trees—to today, when we’re working with entire landscapes and ecoregions, cooperating with local communities, experimenting with new techniques. This is the future of conservation.”

For more information about the Cosumnes River Preserve call (916) 684-2816 or visit their Web site at or write to 13501 Franklin Blvd., Galt, CA, 95632.

To learn more about the Nature Conservancy, write to 4245 North Fairfax Dr., Suite 100, Arlington, VA, 22203-1606 or call toll-free (800) 628-6860 or visit their Web site at

Information about the drinking water state revolving fund and the clean water state revolving fund may be found at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Web site at or by writing to 1200 Pennsylvania Ave., NW Washington, DC 20460 or by calling (202) 260-7786.