Sandhill cranes, like these seen Thursday along Nelson Road, are among the winter visitors to the Sacramento Valley. They prefer very shallow water and are known to feast on leftover grain, such as rice, from farming. Bill Husa — Enterprise-Record
By Heather Hacking, Chico Enterprise-Record Posted: 10/15/15, 10:23 PM PDT | Updated: 8 hrs ago
Wildlife managers are worried again this year: Will there be enough wet habitat for millions of birds in the Sacramento Valley? Before the drought, 250,000-300,000 acres of California rice lands was flooded each winter. However, this year the estimate is that only 100,000 acres will be wet, said Paul Buttner, manager of environmental affairs for the California Rice Commission. That’s about 25,000 acres less than was flooded last year. Weather watchers have been predicting Southern California will receive help from El Niño, a warm weather pattern that brings more rain. The latest news Thursday is that Northern California is also likely to receive better than average amounts of rain. Yet, those storms might not arrive until after the first of the year. In the meantime, the first flights of those birds are beginning to arrive now in the Sacramento Valley.
Meanwhile, growers knew that the limited amount of water they received was all that would be coming. Farmers of rice put the boards up in their fields to hold any water that fell from the sky. The water helps the bird populations, and also helps rice straw to decompose in the fields. When farmers receive less surface water, wildlife areas including the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge also receive less water. Last year, refuge managers tried to put water where it would go to the best use, said Dan Frisk, project manager for the Sacramento Refuge complex. For example, if one chunk of land was known to be popular with migrating waterfowl, habitat managers tried to put water on that land. Other areas received water if it looked like plants would grow and provide food for birds.
…Last year the big saving grace for the bird population was rains in December. The storms were not enough to make a dent on the drought. Yet, they did flood fields and provide more areas for birds to feed, Buttner said. This year, many of the same factors exist going into the rainy season. A large number of birds were born in good breeding conditions in Alaska and Canada. Those numerous birds are looking for winter feeding grounds in the Sacramento Valley.
Again, wildlife managers are trying to be strategic about where water is placed this winter.
If this was a normal year, farmers would want to put water on their land when its still warm. This helps the rice straw decompose more quickly.
However, they’re holding back because warm water will evaporate more quickly…..Last year, and again this year, The Nature Conservancy has reached out to rice farmers to get more land under water, and for longer periods of time.
The BirdReturns program asks growers to flood up early or leave water on longer to extend the wet season for migrating birds, offering financial incentives to landowners.
Growers place a bid for how much funding they would expect. The Nature Conservancy then chooses from those applications. Working with data from recent years, experts choose land that is both affordable to flood and that will provide strategic winter feeding for birds. The results so far have been good, focusing on habitat for shorebirds. Those lands that remained flooded in February and March had dramatically larger numbers of birds, explained Greg Gollet, senior ecologist for The Nature Conservancy. Normally, farmers would let their field dry out during this time in preparation of the next crop. Birds are mobile and will migrate en masse if the food or water runs out on a piece of land. Typically, the flock flies over and checks out land that looks good from the air. Later in the season, Llano Seco Wildlife Refuge along 7-Mile Lane will be flooded. However, there’s neither water, nor very many birds there now. Scott Huber, a bird expert in Chico, said he was driving near Highways 70 and 20 this week, near Ramirez Road, and some of those fields had been flooded. He said tens of thousands, and perhaps hundreds of thousands, of ducks and geese had already spotted this area and were on the ground. “They had just been flooded a few days ago,” Huber said.