As a blistering California summer comes to a close, winter rains seem long ago. But for Central Valley wetlands and wildlife, a moderate El Niño winter and a new creative water project are hopeful signs after years of brutal drought.
On August 26, the Bureau of Reclamation and the Del Puerto Water District broke ground for a water recycling project to take treated water from Modesto and Turlock across the Valley in a new pipeline, to be shared among South of Delta farmers and wildlife refuges. Eventually, the project will provide up to 48,000 acre-feet (59m cubic meters) of drought-proof supply, with one-quarter going to wetlands and the rest to farmers.
This is truly a win-win project and it couldn’t come at a more critical time.
In 2014 and 2015, Central Valley wetlands received little to no water during the spring and summer, leaving parched and barren ground. This year, winter rains gave new life to these places. However, this temporary rebound hinges on our ability to deliver water in future dry years.
Prior to the Gold Rush, the Central Valley was a vast network of wetlands. Today, only 5-10 percent remain. Most depend on the Central Valley Project to deliver the water that represents their lifeblood. Today, these wetlands are only wet if we give them water.
Because we have lost so much wetland habitat, the importance of the remaining wetlands is magnified – they support 60 percent of the Pacific Flyway’s migratory waterfowl and 20 percent of the entire North American population of waterfowl.
The environment and wildlife have felt the impact of the drought along with the rest of us. In 2014 and 2015, tens of thousands of acres of dry San Joaquin Valley wetlands contributed to a 42 percent reduction in breeding mallards. Without water, resident birds struggle to successfully raise young.
Dry wetlands in spring and summer also stunt the plants that feed millions of ducks, geese and other species during fall and winter migration – potentially leading to overcrowding or malnourished and unhealthy birds.
With La Niña conditions brewing in the Pacific, 2017 may bring another dry year. Climate change may also make droughts more frequent. We need to improve wetlands management so that future droughts aren’t as devastating. The new North Valley recycling project is a step in the right direction.
Fortunately, the federal agencies responsible for delivering water to wetlands have other opportunities.
First, they can complete the construction of canals to deliver water to wildlife refuges. Astonishingly, 24 years after Congress provided a guaranteed water supply to Central Valley wetlands, the Bureau still has not built facilities to deliver all of this water.
Secondly, we can increase the flexibility to transfer water among wetlands. Currently, transferring water between wetland areas is very difficult, leaving water designated for some refuges unused. Just as the Bureau allows contractors to sell water to other farmers, they should allow wetland supplies to be shared among wildlife areas.
Finally, more progress must be made in securing permanent water for wetlands. The water needed by these refuges is a tiny percentage of California’s water supply – 2 percent of statewide use. Despite a congressional mandate nearly a quarter-century old, full wetland supplies have never been delivered.
With adequate water, we can meet the needs of millions of birds that migrate through our state. This spring and summer, water deliveries allowed breeding mallards to increase by 52 percent. Wetlands can bounce back when we meet their modest needs.
Now is the time to ensure that our environment is better prepared to weather the continuing drought and those yet to come.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Water Deeply.