Water Cuts Threaten Rice Field Bird Habitat

Taylor HillmanEnvironment, Water

With rice harvest underway, Sacramento Valley farmers say they’re concerned about getting autumn water on fields for crop decomposition and habitat for migrating birds. Officials have not announced final decisions about if or how much fall and winter water will be available this year.

Waiting in the wings are an estimated 4 million to 6 million migratory birds that winter in the Central Valley each year. Wildlife refuge managers say 80,000 pintail ducks—typically among the first birds to arrive in the valley—are already settling into wetlands.

“Whether we’ll get enough water to put on private rice lands for the migratory birds is a big concern right now, especially if we don’t get much winter rain,” said Jon Munger, operations vice president for Montna Farms in Sutter County.

The water situation differs by area, he said. Some water districts will have water available up to Nov. 1, but after that the supply is unknown. Other irrigation districts and water users have had their water diversions curtailed. In other areas, there is groundwater, but pumping water is expensive and so far agency funding for the added costs hasn’t been announced.

In an average year, California farmers create about 300,000 acres of managed wetlands, the California Rice Commission said. But last year, farmers were able to create only about 100,000 acres of habitat due to water supply limitations and this year, the rice acres converted to habitat may total as few as 50,000 acres, wildlife experts said.

The Central Valley is the most important waterfowl wintering area along the Pacific Flyway, biologists said, and having wetlands available is essential to provide resting area, food and prevent disease triggered by habitat overcrowding. Winter-flooded rice and corn fields can provide more than 50 percent of the food migrating waterfowl need, experts said.

Stakeholder discussions with state and federal agencies last week focused on how much water may be available to create managed wetlands, how many acres might be involved and what funding might be available to pay for added costs to pump groundwater. Decisions have not yet been announced.

Four years into the drought, Mark Biddlecomb, Ducks Unlimited Western regional director, said conditions for migrating waterfowl are becoming “more worrisome.”

“We’re worried about the refuges and whether they’ll be able to hang onto their 75 percent allocation of fall water,” Biddlecomb said. “We haven’t been able to irrigate in the summer and the public wetlands being flooded up aren’t in the best shape anyway.”

The bigger worry is whether water will be available for private rice ground, he said, noting that those fields provide “an important food source for the birds.”

Hanging over everything, Biddlecomb said, is the long-term outlook.

“If farmers give up creating managed wetlands during the winter to get rid of rice straw and find other alternatives and cultural practices, it will be very difficult for the birds,” he said. “Right now, everything is up in the air. We need to find funds to help farmers maintain the practice of winter-flooding fields.”

California farmers are harvesting about 375,000 acres of rice this year, down about 60,000 acres from last year, according to the California Rice Commission. The current acreage represents the least amount of rice planted since 1991, when the state had its last significant drought. Average state acreage is around 550,000.

Less rice planted means less bird habitat, Biddlecomb said.

When it comes to the delivery of water to support wetland habitat, Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge Complex manager Dan Frisk said timing is everything. Without adequate habitat, he said, refuge managers are looking at ways to spread the birds out to help prevent disease outbreaks.

“We’re working very closely with our neighbor farmers and the rice community to determine which fields in which areas will do the birds the most good,” he said.

The goal for winter wetlands in the Sacramento Valley this year is to obtain some releases from Lake Shasta and other upstream reservoirs, so farmers can continue their cultural practices, said David Guy, Northern California Water Association president.

“There’s a half million acre-feet more water behind Shasta this year than last year,” he said, adding that he hopes the State Water Resources Control Board will lift water curtailments once winter storms arrive, as it did last year.

The biggest piece of the puzzle is developing a plan for maximizing available water this year, Guy said, for example by offering incentives for rice farmers to put boards into their water inlet structures to retain as much water on the land as possible.

“The state Department of Fish and Wildlife is looking for additional funding to provide some water for managed wetlands,” he said, “and we hope there will be some funding available for groundwater pumping.”

Rice farmer Munger described the uncertainty about water for wetlands as “very, very concerning,” and pointed out that December rains “saved us” in 2014.

“But this year, there’s still no solid plan if it doesn’t rain,” he said. “In some of the irrigation districts where we farm, we still don’t know about water availability this fall.”

Given the uncertainty, Munger said, Montna Farms is proceeding as if the water will eventually become available, by harvesting, chopping and disking for rice decomposition.

He said many decisions remain “up in the air,” but stressed that action needs to be taken in coming weeks, mindful that millions of wild birds will depend on it.

Permission for use is granted by the California Farm Bureau Federation. Kate Campbell is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at kcampbell@cfbf.com.