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Group helping park in bad times
The city is in a tight money crunch, so efforts to restore the lower terrace of Ceres River Bluff Regional Park is on the back burner. Leaders of the Tuolumne River Trust (TRT), however, are drumming up public volunteer support to keep the momentum going so the river park may be returned to its previous natural state.

In 2000 the city of Ceres spent $1.05 million for the 76-acre park site on the eastern side of River Oaks Golf Course. The park is split into two natural plains - the Hatch Road level plain now bears 38 acres of athletic fields; and the 38-acre "lower terrace" out of view near the Tuolumne River. The city's desire was to convert the walnut orchard back to a wild river land state where the public could stroll among native plants and trees and wildlife. In 2006 the city devoted a small section of the park to a memorial for slain Ceres Police Sgt. Howard Stevenson.

Half of the restoration work has been underway. A wetlands lagoon has been cut and the city has planted native vegetative species like valley oak and cottonwood trees. The rest of the terrace still bears the old walnut trees and the city has suspended their removal for fear it will add to maintenance costs. The real effort now is keeping weeds from crowding and choking out native plants so they may flourish.

"Our challenge quite frankly is to maintain what we get when we build it," said Doug Lemcke, director of Parks and Recreation for the city of Ceres. "We've had cutbacks and potentially more cutbacks."

Lemcke said the city spends about $10,000 an acre on maintaining the athletic fields of the park but that lower terrace maintenance runs about $2,500 per acre per year. While cheaper, it's still money that the city doesn't have.

The TRT wants to help spur the park on even though it has no money at the time to devote to the park, said Karlha Arias, the river parkway project manager of TRT. Right now volunteers can do their part.

"When you do a restoration project basically you work at least two years to keep the plants free from weeds because ....a lot of the plants down there are invasive," said Meg Gonzalez, director of Outreach Education for TRT. "So in order for the native plants to really take hold again, you've got to help them along for a little bit."

Help also includes irrigation and weeding. The TRT is planning an April 25 clean-up day involving members of the Ceres Youth Commission. Arias is asking service clubs to help out as well. Tree planting and trash pickup are also tasks needing to be done.

"One of the things that we'd like to do is try to engage some of the youth groups and get them to help with maintaining the park," said Gonzalez.

The Trust is not sponsoring the clean-up nor devoting staff but is directing people to the city.

"Basically we're going to be doing a lot of weeding," said Gonzalez. "I'm going to be taking a lot of time to introduce the community to the park and bring some nets and do some sampling for water critters and things like that. So it will be different from a regular clean-up because we want to take this opportunity to get people excited about the park."

For years the cities along the Tuolumne - namely Ceres, Modesto and Waterford - have not made the river a priority, said Gonzalez. She said Ceres did well by buying the park site and adding the lower terrace to the Tuolumne River Regional Park, a non-continuous series of parks that includes the Riverdale section in South Modesto, the park on the Modesto side of the river north of Ceres and a section in Waterford.

The non-profit, grant funded TRT is about preserving the river's entire length and seeing to the development of the strand of sections of Tuolumne River Regional Park,

"All of these public access points we're trying to promote to the community and hopefully in the future make it sort of like the American River Parkway in Sacramento," said Arias. "Getting people back outdoors and getting on their bikes and enjoying nature.

Many residents are completely unaware that the lower terrace part of the Ceres River Bluff Regional Park exists, and that it's open for walks, hikes and bird watching.

"What we've found out is that most people in Ceres don't know there's a park behind the soccer fields," said Arias.

"It's one of those cases of 'build it and they will come,' " said Gonzalez. "There are more wetland birds in that little marsh area that they've created. And they did a really good job because ... they drain the water off of the playing fields and the golf course, they pass it through this filtering system that they constructed the marsh out of and by the time it gets to the river it's clean. So it's a really great model for other areas."

Now a sanctuary for herons and egrets, the local Audobon Society occasionally uses the lower terrace for bird watching. Gonzalez said the Trust is working to get the Sierra Club to sponsor walks in all the parks to get familiar with them.

"This is a great place," she said. "It has a lot to offer even though the city can't afford the maintenance on that."

Arias has also promoted the lower terrace to Ceres public schools for field trips with volunteers manning educational stations. The park's locality makes it a great and cheap field trip, said Gonzalez.

"This is the perfect place to bring science alive for kids," said Gonzalez.

The TRT's three-hour river education program involves training teachers through the Great Valley Museum and rotating children through a series of stations that include the food chain, water quality testing, and a look at the marsh. TRT supplies backpacks for teachers filled with all the materials needed to conduct a field trip.

"We try to keep the activities really simple and straight-forward," said Gonzalez.

Arias said the Trust will continue to seek grant funding so cities like Ceres can invest in the river parks.

"What I think is really neat about our organization is that we're an advocate for all these different parks," said Arias. "We promote it. Everywhere we go when we have presentations we talk about Ceres River Bluff Regional Park. We also advocate for making sure people know to keep it clean, do restoration."

The TRT also has an office in San Francisco as part of its effort to education city dwellers about the importance of preserving the Tuolumne River.