One of the most difficult parts of making environmental changes is bringing all the parties to the table. Sometimes it takes lawsuits, sometimes it takes political pressure. In the case of the Sacramento River in California's Central Valley, it has taken 13 years of meetings among environmentalists, government officials and farmers to gain consensus and cement ties for a group to coordinate a river restoration project along a huge portion of the 373-mile river. The best-known and most contentious part of the Sacramento River is where it forms the Bay Delta with the San Joaquin River. But an equally important part, with thousands of acres of riparian habitat and thousands of salmon, is a 220-mile stretch of the river between Redding and Sacramento. Efforts to improve the river's environment got a boost recently when state, federal and local government recently announced the formation of the Sacramento River Conservation Area, which will attempt to continue improving the 220 miles of river. The Conservation Area grew out of 13 years of meetings. The Conservation Area is similar in many ways to conservancies that exist throughout the state, which acquire, restore and preserve open space. And the organization could evolve into a conservancy one day. But the SRCA will be run by a nonprofit organization because no one thought that forming a new government agency was a good idea, according to Diana Jacobs, deputy director of the state Department of Fish and Game and a key figure in formation of the conservation zone. The SRCA will comprise seven counties: Shasta, Tehama, Glenn, Butte, Colusa, Sutter and Yolo. So far, only Shasta, Tehama, Colusa and Glenn counties have signed on, but Bundy expects the others to join shortly. The new nonprofit board running the SRCA will consist of two appointees from each of the seven counties, and a 15th member appointed by the state resources secretary. The group will also include six non-voting members from government agencies. Half the county appointees are people who own, manage or farm land in the area. The San Joaquin River already has a state conservancy covering a portion of the waterway, and protection of other watersheds in California is done on a regional basis. The Sacramento River Conservation Area is notable, Jacobs said, because of its size — more than 200 miles of river. The SRCA itself is the successor to an advisory council begun by the Legislature in 1986 to look at the river's future. The council had 25 members, including landowners, government agency representatives and environmentalists. The council spent years developing the consensus needed to plan for the river's future, which will now be guided by the newly named Conservation Area. Jacobs, who was a member of the earlier council, said it had no power to seek grants or permits, and members never felt comfortable commenting on projects. Creating a nonprofit organization is expected to make it easier to do the same work . Except when it floods, the stretch contained in the Sacramento River Conservation Area, receives little notice. It flows through mainly farmland. The closer the river gets to Sacramento, the narrower the levees. Along the river, trees have been cut to provide more room for agriculture, and, combined with other factors, this has led to a decline of some fish species. More than two dozen species in the river are already classified as threatened or endangered species or are candidates for those designations. The council came up with several ideas that the SRCA will help to implement: allowing meander zones so that the river can flood periodically and support more wildlife, and planning for environmental restoration along the river. Agriculture will continue to thrive, but with the SRCA's prodding, efforts will continue to revive the river's riparian forests and fish life. The SRCA does not directly perform restoration projects, according to Burt Bundy, SRCA coordinator and a former Tehama County Supervisor. But it does bring parties together, and thus can create support for legislative funding to solve the river's problems, he said. Much of the land along the river is in private ownership. Working with individual plum growers or walnut growers, each with their own political views, priorities and personalities, can be challenging, said Ronald Stork of the environmental group Friends of the River. "That requires a lot of community outreach," he said. Bundy said SRCA tries to address problems on a specific unit of the river at the same time so that one solution does not cause problems further downstream. He contrasted this method to a more traditional approach where a flood control levee might be built, land downstream is damaged by flooding related to the upstream levee, and a lawsuit is filed. Recently, Bundy met with a half dozen farmers near Colusa, some of whom belonged to families that have been farming for more than 100 years. They were tired of paying the costs of fighting floods, cleaning up debris, and replacing trees. They wanted to sell portions of their ranches either to groups such as the Nature Conservancy or the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. It's something the SRCA hopes to encourage. New environmental programs do not always get the support of the agricultural community. According to Jacobs, at least one agricultural group in the Colusa area has expressed opposition to the conservation zone. But the sale Bundy discussed should match one of SRCA's missions, which is to naturally restore and protect 30,000 acres on both sides of the river. The inner river zone would allow the river to meander and even overflow to protect the wildlife it supports. Because few towns are located along the river, flooding would not create the same havoc as it would in other parts of the state. The inner river zone is based on the river's past and projected future flood history, Bundy explained. The SRCA runs on a budget of about $100,000 a year, but state bonds approved in March will provide millions of dollars for river and watershed protection projects. Proposition 12, the parks bond, allocates $3 million for watershed, riparian and wetlands restoration along the Sacramento River in Yolo, Glenn and Colusa counties. Proposition 13, the water bond, creates a $95 million protection program for the state's rivers, although no specific money is allocated for the Sacramento. Bundy said the group does not emphasize water quality issues that are a focus of CalFed talks on the Delta's future. One water issue that should get more attention in coming months involves hearings before the State Water Resources Control Board to apportion water losses to water rights holders along the Sacramento River. Such matters arise as part of CalFed and other efforts to restore the Delta's plant and animal communities. Hearings should begin sometime in the spring. So far, CalFed has not come up with a way to apportion river water so that both farmers and fish have enough. Contacts: Diana Jacobs, deputy director, Department of Fish and Game, (916) 654-9937. Burt Bundy, coordinator, Sacramento River Conservation Area, (530) 528-7411. Ron Stork, senior policy advocate, Friends of the River, (916) 442-3155.