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Banding Together for Waterfowl

Water, Ducks & People

As demand for water intensifies, DU is working to ensure that waterfowl receive a fair share of this limited resource
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All living things need water, which is becoming an increasingly precious commodity in our crowded world. The fact is, water has always been a limited resource. There is nothing we can do to increase the earth's water supply. All we can do is move water around and store it for relatively short periods of time. 

In the United States, we are now reaching and exceeding the limits of our fresh water supplies in many places, with serious consequences for people, agriculture, industry, and wildlife. Following are a few examples of how water shortages are now impacting waterfowl, and how Ducks Unlimited is working collaboratively with others to find constructive solutions. 

Tapped Out in Texas

Texas has become ground zero in what intensifying competition for limited water can mean for waterfowl and their habitats. Texas's population is growing rapidly, and is predicted to reach 46 million people by 2060. A large portion of the state is suffering through a five-year drought, the worst in decades, further increasing the pressure that growing human populations are placing on already limited water supplies. 

The Texas Gulf Coast is one of the most important waterfowl wintering areas in North America. Each year, approximately 2 million ducks and 750,000 geese spend the winter in the Texas Mid-Coast region. In addition, about 163,000 mottled ducks—25 percent of the continental population—live here year-round.

This region is also part of one of three major rice-producing areas in the United States: the Texas and Louisiana Gulf Coast, the Mississippi Alluvial Valley, and California's Central Valley. Not coincidentally, these areas are all critically important to wintering waterfowl. With most natural wetlands long gone in these areas, well-managed rice lands provide essential alternative habitats for waterfowl. In the Texas Mid-Coast region, rice fields provide two-thirds of the food energy needed by wintering waterfowl.

Rice production requires water, however, and the ongoing drought has depleted agricultural water supplies along the Texas Gulf Coast. Water authorities throughout the state have struggled to juggle the water needs of cities, industry, farming, and conservation and recreational interests. For rice producers and waterfowl managers (often one and the same), it all hit home in 2011, when the Lower Colorado River Authority (LCRA) withheld water for flooding harvested rice fields in winter, an agricultural practice that provides vital habitat for migrating and wintering waterfowl and other migratory birds. 

The situation grew even more serious in 2012, when the LCRA shut off the water to 50,000 acres of rice fields—about one-third of the state's total rice acreage. Conditions did not improve significantly in 2013, and water was once again withheld from these rice lands. The reduction of 50,000 acres of rice meant that the region's carrying capacity for wintering waterfowl was reduced by 600,000 birds, almost a third of the North American Waterfowl Management Plan goal. These decisions also weaken the region's rice-based economy, and at some point farmers here may abandon rice production altogether due to the loss of needed infrastructure. That would be a tremendous blow to a way of life in a region with almost a 100-year history of rice farming as well as a rich waterfowl hunting tradition.

The LCRA also provides water to more than 1 million people, including residents of Austin as well as industries and other municipal users. If the drought does not end soon, farmers and waterfowl could end up on the losing end of the tug of war over water between cities and rural areas. In response, DU and the USA Rice Federation formed the USA Rice–DU Stewardship Partnership in 2013 to work together to benefit rice agriculture, waterfowl, and water. DU is also partnering with the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department and others in the Texas Prairie Wetlands Project to address waterfowl habitat needs in this region. 

Working closely with farmers and other willing landowners, this partnership is restoring about 3,000 acres of waterfowl habitat annually. But given the loss of 50,000 acres of waterfowl habitat on rice lands during the past two years, it is clear that the future of waterfowl conservation in this region will depend on finding ways to ensure adequate supplies of water to sustain a healthy rice industry.  

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