Conserving the West's most important waterfowl wintering area in the face of severe drought

Conserving the West's most important waterfowl wintering area in the face of severe drought

By Devin Blankenship

California is a state blessed with an abundance of natural beauty. From the snowcapped peaks of the Sierra Nevada and the towering redwoods that dot the North Coast to the rugged Pacific coastline and the raw beauty of the Salton Sea, the Golden State offers residents and visitors alike plenty of opportunities to experience nature's magnificence.

This diverse landscape is also home to millions of waterfowl that each fall make the journey down the Pacific Flyway from their northern breeding grounds to take advantage of California's temperate winter climate. Ducks Unlimited's California Wetlands Initiative focuses on conserving the state's prime waterfowl habitats through science, public policy, and outreach.

Sadly, nearly 95 percent of California's historical wetlands have been claimed by urban and agricultural development. This is an overwhelming loss that, in combination with an equally staggering drought, now threatens waterfowl and their habitats like never before. The California Wetlands Initiative's goal is to provide a more secure future for waterfowl by supporting the restoration of threatened wetlands through science-based projects. This initiative focuses on three areas of particular concern: the Central Valley, San Francisco Bay, and Lower Klamath Basin. While each area has specific needs and challenges, waterfowl habitats in all these regions face serious threats related to water quantity and quality.

The Central Valley of California ranks among DU's highest-priority conservation areas. This remarkably productive agricultural region supports from 6 million to 7 million wintering waterfowl each year, including large portions of the continental populations of northern pintails and white-fronted geese. However, with reservoir levels at historic lows and the entire state experiencing extreme drought conditions, California is facing severe water shortages with potentially dire consequences for waterfowl that winter in the Central Valley.

A DROUGHT-STRICKEN LANDSCAPE California is in the midst of a historic drought, which is threatening the state's remaining wetlands and millions of waterfowl that winter here each year. In the Central Valley, wintering waterfowl rely mainly on public and private wetlands and flooded rice fields for feeding and resting habitat. While in an average year there are approximately 165,000 acres of managed wetlands available to ducks in this region, this year's drought will most likely reduce the habitat base to about 135,000 acres, with the San Joaquin Valley expected to see the greatest decline in wetland acreage. The danger of waterfowl diseases such as botulism and cholera could also increase as the birds crowd into remaining habitat. Most managed wetlands are irrigated in the summer to increase the growth of seed-producing moist-soil plants, but few of these habitats have received water this year, which may significantly reduce the food resources available to waterfowl later in the season. In fact, a combination of fewer flooded wetlands and little summer irrigation could reduce the food provided by managed wetlands by up to 50 percent compared to a year with average rainfall. The most obvious impact of the drought, however, may be on rice agriculture. The Central Valley typically boasts 558,000 acres of planted rice, but this past spring, that number dipped to 415,000 acres. Even more alarming, however, is the projection that winter-flooded rice may decrease from 300,000 acres to as few as 50,000 acres. Waterfowl rely heavily on these flooded fields for nourishment, but these vital habitats may be largely unavailable or depleted by early to mid-winter if duck numbers in the Central Valley are similar to those of recent years.

Ducks Unlimited is meeting these challenges head-on through its California Wetlands Initiative. By partnering with federal, state, and private landowners, DU is working to deliver numerous projects that restore key habitat, maximize water-use efficiency, and optimize available wetlands to provide vital food resources and resting areas for waterfowl. DU is also working closely with the rice industry to ensure that rice-farming practices-especially the winter flooding of harvested rice fields-remain strong across California. Waste grain left in harvested rice fields accounts for up to 60 percent of the food resources available to wintering ducks and geese in portions of the Central Valley. Without this wintering habitat and the nutrients that it provides, many ducks and geese will return north to their breeding grounds in Alaska, Canada's Western Boreal Forest, and the Prairie Pothole Region in less than optimal condition.

Funding from the California Wetlands Initiative also allows DU to engage in the public policy arena to ensure that state lawmakers take wetlands and waterfowl into consideration when crafting legislation such as the California Water Bond, which will go before voters this November. This legislation has the potential to ease future drought impacts on waterfowl by providing increased water storage and facilitating wetland restoration projects.

Ducks Unlimited currently has dozens of conservation projects under way throughout California, including Bair Island in southern San Francisco Bay, Tule Lake and Klamath Basin in Northern California, Twitchell Island and Cosumnes River Preserve in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, the Grasslands Ecological Area in the Central Valley, and Piute Ponds in Southern California. Through the California Wetlands Initiative, DU and its partners can help ensure that sufficient habitat remains in the state to provide opportunities for public hunting and other waterfowl-related recreation for generations to come. For more information about how you can support this initiative, visit the DU website at ducks.org/DUinitiatives.

Devin Blankenship is a communications specialist in DU's Western Region.

BRINGING THE TIDE BACK TO SAN PABLO BAY Ducks Unlimited recently began the final phase of the Sears Point Restoration Project, located approximately 20 miles northeast of San Francisco on San Pablo Bay. DU is partnering with several government agencies, aided by key funding from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and a $500,000 grant from The Joseph and Vera Long Foundation, to help lower and breach levees in an area that hasn't been touched by tidal waters in a century. The Sears Point project will reestablish the natural transition from tributary streams to the edge of San Pablo Bay, restoring approximately 1,000 acres of tidal habitat for canvasbacks, scaup, mallards, and northern pintails as well as for 22 fish species, including chinook salmon. The public will also benefit thanks to a walking and running trail that will be constructed on a new levee. This project's accessibility and high visibility within one of the nation's largest population centers means that Sears Point will likely be one of the most-visited restored wetlands in San Pablo Bay. Restoration work is scheduled to be completed by 2015 and is part of a larger $50 million effort to restore the Napa-Sonoma marshes, extending from the Napa River to the Petaluma River along the northern edge of the San Francisco Estuary.