In 1993, Ducks Unlimited launched its Valley Care program, dramatically expanding its conservation work in the Central Valley. Since its inception, Valley Care has received more than $50 million from the North American Wetlands Conservation Act (NAWCA) and other public and private sources, all of which has been directed toward conserving wetlands and waterfowl habitat. Several individual donors and foundations have made generous lead gifts to Valley Care, including Ken Hofmann, Sandi and Paul Bonderson Jr., The David and Lucile Packard Foundation, the Mark and Rebecca Pine Family, the George T. Pfleger Foundation, Thomas Seeno, and the Tuscany Research Institute. These funds combined with NAWCA grants, WRP, and other government sources have helped DU and its joint venture partners restore more than 60,000 acres of wetlands in the Central Valley. DU biologists have also offered technical assistance to hundreds of California farmers, who annually flood between 150,000 and 350,000 acres of harvested rice fields and other croplands, providing valuable winter food resources for waterfowl and other wildlife.
The widespread restoration and enhancement of waterfowl habitat by DU and its partners have helped sustain wintering waterfowl populations in the Central Valley. As recently as the 1970s, the region supported from 10 to 12 million ducks, geese, and swans. During the 1980s, widespread habitat degradation and dwindling water supplies led to a sharp decline in waterfowl numbers, which in 1990 reached a record low of only 3 million birds. The Central Valley now supports from 5 to 7 million wintering waterfowl, including approximately 1 million pintails. Peak duck populations in the Grasslands have also grown dramatically since the early 1990s, largely because of the water provided by the CVPIA and joint venture wetland restoration efforts.
The crisis ahead
Despite all that has been achieved by conservationists in California, the future of wetlands and waterfowl hunting in the state is far from secure. During the next 35 years, the Central Valley’s human population is expected to more than double, from 5.7 million today to an estimated 13.1 million, while the statewide population will increase from 35 million to 58 million. As the demand for living space increases, urban sprawl will become an even greater threat to waterfowl habitat. By some estimates, more than 1 million acres of irrigated farmland could be lost by 2040. In response, DU is working with farmers and many other partners to protect threatened agricultural lands in major rice-growing areas and to conserve additional habitat in historic wetland complexes, including the Grasslands, Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, San Francisco Bay, and the Sutter/Butte, Tulare, and American River basins.
DU is also working closely with agriculture and other groups to secure long-term water supplies for wetlands through public policy. “Our ability to restore and enhance wetlands and waterfowl habitat in the Central Valley is entirely contingent on water supplies,” Widell says. “We’ve had great success putting wetland habitat back on the landscape through WRP, NAWCA, and other conservation programs, but more water will be needed to restore additional habitat in the future. In the short term, DU and its partners will have to pool their resources and buy additional water on the open market to meet our wetland management needs, especially during the spring and summer. In the long term, we will have to work with other partners to develop new sources of water for wildlife. Urbanization will only make water more expensive, and without new supplies, water will eventually become too costly for conservation interests to afford.”
The plight of California’s wetlands serves as a grim warning for waterfowl hunters and others who appreciate wetlands and migratory birds. DU and its partners in the Central Valley Joint Venture are working against great odds to save this state’s precious remaining waterfowl habitats from urban sprawl and looming water shortages. And like so many trends that begin in California, the success or failure of these conservation efforts could be a bellwether for wetlands and waterfowl hunting in many other areas of North America.