In summary

As the drought bears down on the Central Valley, rice farmers and millions of migratory birds will feel the impact.

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By Jeff McCreary

Jeff McCreary is director of operations for the Western Region, Ducks Unlimited,

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Tim Johnson, Special to CalMatters

Tim Johnson is president & CEO of the California Rice Commission,

The Central Valley’s rice fields and wetlands are widely heralded as key rest and refuel stops for millions of migratory birds traveling along the Pacific Flyway. The rice fields provide more than 50% of the diet for the ducks and geese during their fall and winter migration. 

To view rafts of waterfowl feeding on public wildlife areas or seeing thousands of geese taking flight from a rice field are indicators of a healthy environment and visual examples of how vital the Central Valley is to the Flyway. The ducks, geese, shorebirds and other wildlife are cherished by a wide range of wildlife enthusiasts.

Unfortunately, the drought has far reaching consequences for both birds and people. Not only are farmers being forced to reduce rice plantings, all indications point that fall and winter surface water for rice decomposition and wetland habitat will be minimal – less than 100,000 acres.

There are few options if we don’t get timely rains this fall. With a dry fall we could see horrific and historic environmental consequences, jeopardizing multitudes of wetland dependent birds with the potential to impact the entire 4,000-mile long Pacific Flyway.

Once thought of as a reliable source of waterfowl habitat, the winter flooding of harvested rice fields to decompose the remaining rice straw is critically threatened this year. This wildlife-friendly practice is a beacon for nearly 230 wildlife species. 

In a normal year, nearly 300,000 acres of rice are shallowly flooded. Recent analysis by the California Rice Commission, based on current conditions, forecasts as little as one-fourth of the normal amount will have water to support important bird habitat this fall.  

Some Central Valley managed wetlands are promised water from the Central Valley Improvement Act, yet they may only receive a small fraction of their fall and winter surface water allowance. Again, all indications point toward significant fall and winter surface water shortages to support migratory birds.

The current projections are certainly insufficient to support Pacific Flyway visitors, especially given the lack of habitat in the similarly drought stricken Klamath Basin. The amount of flooded ground is insufficient in this part of the Flyway.  Without additional water, devastating outbreaks of disease can afflict birds crowded too tightly together. 

While we hope conditions will improve and the drought cycle breaks this fall, the stakes are too high not to be prepared in case Mother Nature decides otherwise. 

Ducks Unlimited has a variety of projects with rice growers and wetland habitat managers to provide the best environment for wildlife. Many other conservation groups, agricultural stakeholders and agencies join us in a proactive and highly effective partnership. However, as summer bears down on the Central Valley and the landscape becomes more parched, efficiency improvements alone won’t cut it.  We believe that significant funding to support fall and winter water availability be deployed expeditiously. 

At this time, creative solutions are being employed to help wildlife survive this difficult year. Because the dire conditions warrant action, the California Rice Commission will be working with the State Department of Water Resources, along with a coalition of water, agriculture and conservation partners to provide emergency water for Pacific Flyway visitors. Additionally, the Legislature is considering a request for additional water for state wildlife refuges. 

Without these programs, the dry landscape would have drastic consequences for  wildlife and the people who care deeply about them.

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