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The 1989 drought put Putah Creek on the map, when its stream ran dry and the neighboring counties went to court.  Today, after $12 million in restoration efforts, there’s water for farmers and for fish — even amid another drought. As more communities face drought conditions, could the Putah Creek success story be repeated?

I worked with Elizabeth Case, a local staff reporter for The Davis Enterprise in Davis, Calif., to take a closer look at the 25-year history of Putah Creek’s transformation and what it means for California. The project was part of Climate Confidential’s Local Edition initiative, which supports in-depth environmental reporting at community media outlets.

Her research took her from the mucky banks of Putah Creek to the musty courthouse archives and even up into the air for some aerial surveying of the creek’s surroundings. After conducting nearly 50 interviews and reviewing hundreds of documents, she found that the restoration efforts have paid off for both Putah Creek and the surrounding communities.

Native fish have made a remarkable comeback, and the surrounding farms and communities continue to support the project. Scientist and lawyers now see the possibility that Putah Creek could help change the way rivers are managed across the state.

The project was one of the first examples of the “natural regime” approach to river restoration. Rather than managing water for the creek according to a regular schedule, the dam that controls Putah Creek’s fate now mimics the natural boom-and-bust cycle of California’s rainy seasons. Using less water overall — but with some well-timed surges that encourage fish to migrate, breed, and ultimately thrive — the project has encouraged a wholesale recovery of the creek’s native fish populations over most of its meandering length.

The remarkable success of the project has scientists looking at whether the success could be repeated around the state. They’ve identified 181 other dams in California where a little water could go a long way for native fish.

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