After more than two years of sometimes contentious wrangling, the Franks Tract Futures project is working its way toward a final proposal, and the project sponsors are once more seeking public input.
The project — managed jointly by California Division of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW), the Department of Water Resources and the Department of Parks and Recreation — seeks to make changes in Franks Tract with the goal of improving water quality, providing enhanced recreational opportunities and improving the ecology for the benefit of native and desirable wildlife.
Balancing the project’s goals has been a challenge, said Brett Milligan from University of California, Davis. Milligan has been involved in the project since its early days. He has seen it transform from an early focus on establishing habitat for the endangered Delta smelt to a project that has sought input from a broad range of stakeholders.
“The first round of this project, the feasibility study, met the water quality and ecology requirements but did not meet the recreational and local economy (requirements),” said Milligan. “We heard you loud and clear. More or less, this entire last year has been to try to bring in that third tier and to balance these and see if there’s a way that the project can meet all of these criteria and be beneficial to all.”
The original project design failed to earn public support after it was presented in January 2018. At a crossroads, the project managers made a critical decision. They scrapped the proposal and formed an advisory committee of stakeholders with varied interests in Franks Tract rather than try to force the initiative through the process, while fighting the public every step of the way,
“(Project managers) have said, ‘Look. If we don’t have buy in from the community, the stakeholders and the users, this thing’s not going to happen,’” said Mike Moran, advisory committee member and supervising naturalist at Big Break Regional Shoreline. “Once people hear that, they go, ‘I’ve actually got some power. They are considering my stake seriously.’ With that comes the responsibility of saying, ‘I better know my stuff. I better get involved and put my best foot forward. If I’ve got good ideas, this is the place for me to put them out.’ I think this is really encouraging.”
Franks Tract is a 3,300-acre submerged island located just north of Bethel Island. It was farmed in the early 20th century before the island flooded in 1937 and again in 1938. After the 1938 flood, no effort was made to reclaim the island, and it was abandoned. Little Franks Tract, also a flooded island, is a short distance to the west and covers 330 acres at the mouth of the False River. It was flooded for the last time in 1982 when it too was abandoned. Today, most of the area is owned by California State Parks and is managed as the Franks Tract State Recreation Area.
The area, accessible only by boat, developed into a popular spot for fishermen, waterfowl hunters and boaters. A healthy population of non-native striped and black bass made the area a top bass fishing destination and income derived from Bethel Island-based bass fishing tournaments is an important economic driver for the surrounding communities. But problems in the tract also developed.
Submerged aquatic weeds are filling the tract, making navigation difficult — a problem compounded by other hidden and partially hidden obstructions. Beaches are eroding and the path for saltwater intrusion into the Delta passes through the area.
The proposed improvements to Franks Tract come from dredging some portion of the tract to ease navigation and reduce aquatic weeds, and using the dredge materials to build up land in other parts of the tract to create marshes and beaches resulting in new recreational opportunities. The differences in the proposals come down to where the dredging is done and where the marshes are created.
The first meeting of the advisory committee was held last summer. The committee got a look at six new proposals and went to work providing input from their constituents on the pros and cons of different design elements and design objectives. In fairly short order, the six proposals were whittled down to three, and a ‘do nothing’ option was added at the committee’s suggestion.
“We’ve been working with the three designs and refining them,” Milligan said. “We kept refining them, remodeling them, changing and adjusting some of the recreational features based on the feedback we got. It’s been a very interactive process in terms of design based on feedback from the stakeholders.”
The next step in the project is the integration of input received from the public and the advisory committee to create a final proposal that Milligan expects will be published by the end of the summer. Though the project got its start nearly three years ago, Carl Wilcox, a CDFW policy advisor believes it will be another three to five years before work in the tract could begin, assuming there is public support. And Wilcox assumes that funding sources will be identified, though who will pay the project’s cost that was originally estimated between $300 to $650 million is still an open question.
“This isn’t happening overnight,” Wilcox said. “This is just a feasibility study and an effort to see if there’s a project there that could actually be pursued. If there is an interest amongst the local community and other agencies to pursue a project out here, then there would be a more detailed planning and an environment review process before anything happens.”
Responses on the Franks Tract Futures survey will be accepted through the end of June. To participate in the survey, visit https://bit.ly/thepressnet_FranksSurvey. For more information on the Franks Tract Futures project, visit https://franks-tract-futures-ucdavis.hub.arcgis.com/.