NORCO, California -- About 120 volunteers came together to help restore an area around the Santa Ana River to its natural habitat.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Los Angeles District, along with its contractor, UltraSystems Environmental, partnered with the City of Norco to host a tree-planting event May 12 on more than one acre of the Corps' land near the Santa Ana River. About 520 plants and 200 plant cuttings, including California buckwheat, Chemise, Mexican elderberry and arroyo willow were planted.

"It was a great partnership with the Corps of Engineers, UltraSystems and the city to bring a bunch of people together to make a difference," said Brian Petree, deputy city manager for the City of Norco. "Volunteers from probably age 6 to 60 came out to help plant native vegetation in the area."

Several local groups lent a hand to the project, including the Boy Scouts, Cub Scouts, a church missionary group, equestrian groups, Norco High School students, college students and many more, Petree added.

The Scouts were presented with patches for volunteering at the event.

In addition to planting native species in the area, activities also included an interpretive nature walk with a biologist, who explained the importance of balancing the ecosystem in the area; informational booths about the Corps' Santa Ana Mainstem Restoration project and its mission; and a barbecue for volunteers.

Since 2009, the Corps has been restoring more than 600 acres of riparian and upland habitat on federal lands upstream of the Prado Basin in Norco, as mitigation for the Santa Ana River Mainstem flood control project.

The Norco site is just a portion of the entire flood control project, which includes $2.3 billion in infrastructure, engineering design and construction along the river in Orange, Riverside and San Bernardino counties, with the purpose of flood-risk management. Additionally, the Corps is removing non-native vegetation, like arundo, and has partnered with other agencies to restore thousands of acres of land along the river to its native habitat.

Arundo is an invasive plant that often takes all of the water needed for other plants, leaving the area dry and vulnerable to fires. Removing it helps protect wildlife and native plant species in the area and reduces the risk of fire.

When the Corps first started the restoration work in Norco, local equestrian groups in the area were concerned about the agency diminishing trails they use for horseback riding, said Hayley Lovan, chief of the Ecosystem Planning Section with the Los Angeles District.

So Corps' officials decided to have a series of public meetings to inform the community about the agency's goals and to educate residents about the importance of restoring the area to its natural habitat.

"We worked out a way to avoid the main trails, and got the equestrian groups and others to understand what our goals were," Lovan said. "We found that we could really work well together. Once they learned why arundo is not good for the environment, and the Corps wasn't going to leave a barren area, but actually replace it with beautiful native habitat, they really got on board, and it just turned around."

The area is a great place for those who enjoy horseback riding and hiking, Petree said.

"Norco is a huge equestrian community," he said. "We have about 19,000 horses, 24,000 people and 130 miles of trails. Our equestrian groups have worked really close with the Corps and their groups to have these established trails, to make sure things get re-established and that people learn to stay on the trails."

During one of the early public meetings between the Corps and the city, Lovan said, a member of a local equestrian group said she would like to help replant native vegetation in the area, so the group could have a beautiful place to ride. She also offered to get the word out on social media.

"I knew if we just let people come in and plant whatever they wanted, they're not going to plant the right plants -- it might not be native," Lovan said, "so we waited until we were closer to the end of our contract and could see where we needed some extra help."

That's how the idea of having the community planting event came to fruition.

So in the early morning hours of May 12, volunteers showed up with shovels and gloves in hand. And, in less than two hours, all of the plants were in the ground and the drip irrigation was installed.

The event went better than expected, Lovan said, and credited the city with helping get the word out to the community.

"The City of Norco really stepped up and made this happen," Lovan said. "I mean, we had an idea, we found the location, and the city helped get the word out and organize it. To have almost 120 volunteers show up; the whole restoration area got planted within a matter of an hour to an hour-and-a-half. They were all engaged and just excited to be here. Really helpful, especially the little kids. It was so great to see them."

Sheri Shiflett, biologist with the Los Angeles District's Environmental Resources Branch Planning Division, relayed the story of one of the young volunteers at the event.

"He told me he was having so much fun playing with the dirt, and it reminded him of planting his fairy garden with his grandmother," Shiflett said. "It was so sweet."

According to Petree, the restoration event is one of the most positive projects he's seen in the area, and the Corps did a great job of community outreach.

"It's really good that regional partners can come together and do this, and it's been a pleasure working with Hayley (Lovan) and her team," Petree said. "(The Corps) could have said, 'It's our land, you need to do this,' but that's not how they handled it. They handled it really well in working with the community, and the community buying in and selling the mission.

"I think if I got anything out of today, for myself, it was if we educate the younger ones, then they'll educate the next generation and so on. That's how we protect our environment and our habitats."