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Ducks Unlimited concerned about drought impacts to waterfowl, rice

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RICHMOND, Texas, Sept. 30, 2011 – River authorities throughout the state, including the Lower Colorado River Authority (LCRA), are struggling to balance the limited supply of water with the needs of various user groups, including agricultural, municipal, industrial, and wildlife management interests. Ducks Unlimited is working to ensure decision makers and others understand the far-reaching impacts of restricting water available for managing wetland habitat and rice production.

In late August, the LCRA announced that they would not be able to provide "supplemental" water to flood waterfowl management units this year. This decision has far greater impact than what may be seen on the surface as simply limiting local hunting opportunities.

"It is not simply a matter of local waterfowlers not having a place to hunt, though that, too, is a very important aspect of this drought crisis because that translates into significant economic impacts," DU Manager of Conservation Programs for Texas Todd Merendino said. "The larger critical aspect is that in past winters nearly two million waterfowl and millions of other migratory birds and wildlife depended on managed wetlands in the Texas Mid-Coast region for habitat and food resources.  These coastal prairie habitats are part of one of the most important wintering areas for waterfowl in North America."

This abundant wildlife produces economic benefits by bringing in hunters, anglers and bird watchers who spend money on equipment, lodging and food. In fact, according to a 2007 report, Texas leads the pack nationally with the most hunters and anglers (2.6 million), the most money spent by sportsmen and women ($6.6 billion), and the most jobs supported (106,000) and tax revenue generated ($1.3 billion) by outdoor recreation in the state.

Add to that loss of revenue the likelihood that rice producers will have limited or no irrigation water, and the Texas coast is facing serious economic difficulties brought on by this drought. In late September the LCRA gave notice that conditions had deteriorated to the point that they will reduce or eliminate the availability of water to rice growers unless conditions improved significantly by March 2012.

The LCRA provides water for about 60,000 acres of rice, approximately one-third of the entire Texas acreage. The loss of rice would be a substantial economic blow to the many farmers, communities, and service industries that have a nearly 100-year history with rice agriculture and further exacerbate waterfowl habitat shortfalls along the Gulf Coast.

"With the widespread loss of freshwater prairie wetlands and coastal marshes, flooded rice fields provide critical resting and feeding habitat for waterfowl along the Gulf Coast." Merendino said. "Of the two million waterfowl that may winter in the region annually, historical surveys and other data suggest that fully 75 percent of the dabbling ducks and 90 percent of the geese wintering in the region may depend on rice agricultural habitats."

The loss of that habitat would impact waterfowl abundance and distribution along the Texas coast and may also impact their ability to return to northern breeding grounds in a condition for optimum reproduction and survival. Those effects make the local drought a continental problem.

"Hard decisions have already been made, and more difficult ones are likely to come," Merendino said. "This is going to be a long term issue and it is vital that decision makers realize the far-reaching impacts of water restrictions on agriculture, waterfowl and other wildlife.  DU is working to ensure that rice production and wildlife habitat interests are fully understood by all parties. DU volunteers and staff have met with LCRA to discuss the situation and to seek long-term solutions, understanding that none of them will come quickly or cheaply."

Ducks Unlimited is the world's largest non-profit organization dedicated to conserving North America's continually disappearing waterfowl habitats. Established in 1937, Ducks Unlimited has conserved more than 12 million acres thanks to contributions from more than a million supporters across the continent. Guided by science and dedicated to program efficiency, DU works toward the vision of wetlands sufficient to fill the skies with waterfowl today, tomorrow and forever.

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Chris Jennings      901-758-3732    cjennings@ducks.org
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