Running on Empty

In California, the future of wetlands and waterfowl hunting rests on how the state's limited water supplies are managed.

by Matt Young

An almost impenetrable blanket of fog covers the surrounding marsh as Jeff Kerry and I make our way down a muddy dike leading to a blind somewhere in California’s Grasslands. Having made this trip countless times in similar conditions, my host could find the concrete pit blindfolded. But for new club members and visitors like me, hand-painted wooden signs posted along the dikes clearly mark the locations of the many blinds strategically positioned throughout this intensively managed wetland complex. Dense fog regularly forms during cool winter nights in the Central Valley, where the temperature rarely falls below freezing. Judging by the symphony of green-winged teal, wigeon, and pintail whistling coming from the surrounding marsh, this morning’s flight promises to be a good one when the fog lifts.

“We need some wind,” Kerry says, pulling away a layer of grass covering the pit. “Ducks have everything they need right here—food, water, and cover—and it often takes a good breeze to break up the fog and get the birds flying.”

A native Californian and lifelong waterfowl hunter, Kerry is an entrepreneur and conservationist who has restored and enhanced wetland habitat on several duck clubs in the Grasslands. Once called “Sprig Alley” for the spectacular numbers of pintails that gathered there, this 160,000-acre mosaic of duck clubs and state and federal conservation lands is the largest remaining contiguous area of wetlands in California. Of the 4 million acres of wetlands that once existed in the state’s vast Central Valley, only 9 percent—or about 350,000 acres—remain intact. At peak times, the Central Valley hosts more than 60 percent of the Pacific Flyway’s ducks and geese. The Grasslands alone regularly support more than 1 million dabbling ducks. Nowhere in the world do more waterfowl rely on a smaller wetland base.

Historically, the Grasslands were part of an extensive wetland system that flooded naturally when seasonal rains and mountain runoff caused rivers and streams to overflow their banks. Today, most of the region’s water is supplied by the Central Valley Project (CVP), a sprawling network of reservoirs, aqueducts, canals, and pumping stations that transports water from north to south throughout the valley. For the Grasslands and many other wetlands, the CVP is a life-support system. The same is true for California agriculture. Visit a grocery store anywhere in the United States, and there is a good chance much of the produce was grown in the Central Valley. Many of these crops and wetland habitats are entirely dependent on irrigation water transported by the CVP network.

As Kerry and I listen quietly to the ducks and other water birds calling to each other in the fog, the tranquility of the marsh is suddenly broken by the piercing scream of a World War II era air raid siren. In an old Grasslands tradition, members of a nearby club sound the alarm to mark the beginning of legal shooting time. Pandemonium ensues as shots ring out from every point of the compass, and untold numbers of ducks roar into flight and mill about in the fog.

Clenching a whistle in his teeth, Kerry calls continuously to unseen flocks, skillfully imitating the trilling whistles of rafted teal and sprig. Every few minutes, flights of ducks—mostly green-winged teal—materialize over our decoys, offering us fleeting shots before vanishing again into the fog. Looking across the marsh, I catch a glimpse of two hunters wading through the mist to a neighboring blind. In this surreal setting, they look like ghosts of waterfowlers past—perhaps Bing Crosby and Clark Gable—who once gunned these fabled waters. But the two hunters are actually Dr. Fritz Reid, director of conservation planning, and Dave Widell, director of conservation policy, at Ducks Unlimited’s Western Office in Sacramento. Both are avid waterfowlers and seldom miss an opportunity to hunt at Kerry’s duck club.

The visibility gradually improves as the rising sun burns through the fog and a light breeze stirs the flotilla of decoys around us. During the next few hours, several flocks of ducks pitch into our rig, allowing us to collect a colorful mixed bag of greenwings, wigeon, and a gorgeous bull sprig that sails too close to my side of the blind. The presence of so many waterfowl in the Grasslands is nothing short of a miracle brought about by scores of waterfowl hunters and other conservationists who have worked together for decades to manage and protect the area’s unique wetland ecology.

Restoring the grasslands

Five years ago, Kerry’s duck club was nothing more than marginal farmland used to raise sugar beets and to store agricultural wastewater. In 2001, Kerry bought the property, which was enrolled in the Wetlands Reserve Program (WRP), a Farm Bill conservation program administered by the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) that pays landowners to restore and protect wetlands on marginal agricultural lands with conservation easements. Although WRP has only been available to landowners since 1992, the program has contributed significantly to wetland conservation efforts in California. This year, WRP enrollment in the state will likely surpass 100,000 acres.

Funding assistance for the restoration work on Kerry’s property was provided by several government agencies and conservation organizations, including the NRCS, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, California Department of Fish and Game, California Wildlife Conservation Board, Central Valley Joint Venture,  and Ducks Unlimited through a grant from The David and Lucile Packard Foundation. DU biologists and engineers provided technical assistance to restore the natural hydrology on this historic wetland, and heavy construction equipment was used to recontour land, develop gravity-fed irrigation ditches, and install water-control structures. These improvements made it possible for the property to receive a reliable supply of irrigation water and to be intensively managed for waterfowl.

To date, DU has helped restore or enhance more than 119,000 acres of wetlands on 204 projects in the Grasslands, the largest concentration of DU projects outside the Prairie Pothole Region. Of this total, roughly 37,000 acres have been restored or enhanced on national wildlife refuges and state wildlife areas, which are open to the public and offer good waterfowl hunting. The San Luis National Wildlife Refuge Complex in Merced County, for example, typically receives about 10,000 visits by waterfowlers each season, and these hunters bag an average of two ducks per hunt during these visits. The USFWS has also secured conservation easements on more than 80,000 acres of private lands in the Grasslands, permanently protecting the majority of the remaining wetland habitat in the area from future development.

Liquid assets

Mark Twain reportedly said that in the West, “whiskey is for drinking; water is for fighting over.” And from the very beginning, waterfowl hunters in the Grasslands have had to fight to keep water flowing into their marshes. During the 1940s when dam construction on the San Joaquin River threatened their water supplies, duck clubs and other local landowners banded together to form the Grasslands Water Association. Led by the late J. Martin Winton and others, this group sued the Department of the Interior to maintain water deliveries to the Grasslands. The settlement in this case led to the creation of the Grasslands Water District, the only water district in the state with the sole purpose of providing water for wildlife habitat management.

“It’s safe to say that we would have very little wetland habitat left in California were it not for the efforts of waterfowl hunters, and this is especially true in the Grasslands,” Reid says. “Nearly two-thirds of the remaining wetlands in the Central Valley are owned and managed by private duck clubs, and many of them were acquired decades before wetland conservation programs began. By conserving vital habitat on their own property and working tirelessly with other conservationists to secure water supplies for wetlands, hunters have done more for waterfowl and other migratory birds in California than any other group.”

When water quality and supply issues once again threatened the Grasslands in the 1980s, waterfowl hunters and other conservationists lobbied for new federal legislation that would allocate more water for wetland management. Their advocacy led to the passage of the Central Valley Project Improvement Act (CVPIA) in 1992, which guaranteed a stable supply of clean water to support fish and wildlife populations in the Grasslands, as well as on federal refuges and state conservation areas throughout the Central Valley. The CVPIA has been a huge benefit to the Central Valley Joint Venture, a cooperative effort involving government agencies, conservation organizations, private landowners, and many other partners to restore wetland habitat in support of North American Waterfowl Management Plan objectives. At current supply levels, the CVPIA provides 72 percent of the water required to meet the joint venture’s wetland conservation goals.

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.