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Despite Rain, Drought Continues for Waterfowl

Five million waterbirds rely on habitats along the Pacific Flyway in California that are increasingly threatened by insufficient water allocations to wildlife refuges. Even in a rainy year, these wetlands don’t have enough water.

Written by Brigid McCormack Published on Read time Approx. 3 minutes
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Finding habitat in California’s Central Valley wasn’t a problem for migratory ducks and geese 150 years ago. There weren’t wildlife refuges – but they didn’t need any. The Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers created a vast green floodplain that hosted up to 40 million birds.

Habitat for the valley’s waterfowl today – even though their numbers have fallen to around five million – is much harder to find. Water has been diverted. Wetlands have been carved up for farms and communities. Drought has parched the landscape.

The rain we’re getting now will help. But it’s important to remember that, these days, it’s a drought for ducks and geese even when it’s raining.

This precarious situation is not new. Congress recognized the importance of the Central Valley wetlands, one of the most important stopping points on the Pacific Flyway, more than 20 years ago. In 1992, acknowledging that federal water development contributed to the loss of more than 90 percent of Central Valley wetlands, Congress passed the Central Valley Project Improvement Act and set minimum water allocations for the few remaining refuges.

But through 20 years of wet and dry winters, Central Valley refuges have never received the legally mandated minimum water supplies they need to manage their land for a wide variety of wildlife. Of course, refuges have shared the burden of drought alongside farms and communities. But there’s something wrong when our wetlands don’t have enough water even when it’s wet.

Part of the problem has been that there just aren’t sufficient pipes and canals to deliver water to some of these refuges. Thankfully, the water bond passed by voters a year ago can begin to solve this infrastructure problem.

But that’s not all. Birds have faced a double jeopardy in the last few dry years. Refuges have been getting less water during the drought, and the rice fields birds use as a surrogate habitat have also increasingly left unplanted or dry during critical winter months.

In the fall of 2014, drought made the outlook for birds particularly grim. In the highly engineered Central Valley landscape, the water deliveries birds rely to keep their wetlands wet are at the lowest level in decades.

Yet wildlife refuge managers responded by setting new standards for creative management and coordination. Water typically used during summer to grow food for birds was held until later in the year. Managers tracked where the birds were during every step of their migration route and used water exactly where and when it was needed. For instance, Grasslands National Wildlife Refuge didn’t flood its wetlands until it received word that birds were heading south from the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge.

Even with this level of coordination, water was so scarce that managers feared major die-offs from avian diseases, as birds were becoming concentrated in scraps of habitat. Luckily, rains in early December 2014 likely saved managers from having to collect thousands of bird carcasses.

We’re getting more rain this year and the outlook is better. A few months ago, wildlife agencies expected about 75,000 acres of habitat in the Sacramento Valley this winter. But thanks to timely rain, and the creative efforts of farmers and agencies, there may be just more than twice that amount.

But it’s hardly time for celebration. Even with these rains, available habitat will fall far short of the approximately 500,000 acres seen in a normal year.

The biggest challenge is that the fraction of California’s water that is allocated to refuges is under constant attack from those who oppose water for environmental uses. Year after year, in dry years and wet, water grabs, in the form of lawsuits and legislative proposals, emerge that would deprive refuges of the water they need.

This ongoing battle distracts us from real solutions that could benefit birds, farms and cities alike. We can recycle wastewater from Central Valley cities to increase supplies for wetlands and farms. And federal agencies need to provide the refuges with the water supplies required by law.

We’ve gotten lucky the past two winters. But when it comes to protecting California’s natural heritage, hoping to get lucky isn’t a strategy. Now that rain is falling, we need to find effective solutions to the water crisis in California – solutions that aren’t a zero sum game favoring one side over another.

Top image: A pair of White-Faced Ibis, left, and a Egret forage for food in a rice field near Yuba City, Calif, in September 2014. (Rich Pedroncelli, Associated Press)

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