Conserving California's Wetlands

Gold brought hundreds of thousands of people to California 170 years ago, but today water is the state's most treasured commodity and a key to healthy and abundant wildlife habitats

by Devin Blankenship, Dr. Mark Petrie, and Gary Link

James Marshall's discovery of gold in 1848 set California on a short road to statehood. It also marked the onset of major changes for the wildlife habitats in California's Central Valley—one of the most important waterfowl wintering areas on the continent. When Marshall noticed those few shiny specks of gold in the creek below Sutter's Mill, the Canadian and U.S. prairies were still essentially untouched. In a wet year, the prairies could send over 400 million ducks south, four to five times the number we see today. Between 25 million and 30 million of those migrating birds found their way to the Central Valley.

The gold rush brought 300,000 people to California, but the discovery of the Central Valley's agricultural worth would prove far more enduring than gold. The region offers the perfect blend of soil and climate for agriculture. Today, the Central Valley accounts for only one percent of the nation's farmland, but it generates nearly 10 percent of all U.S. agricultural revenue.

Prior to the 1850s, the valley contained nearly four million acres of wetlands. Rivers and floodplains covered the valley floor, providing habitat for fish, waterfowl, and other wildlife. By the late 1930s only 500,000 acres of wetlands remained. And by the mid-1980s that figure had dipped below 200,000 acres. Now, more than 95 percent of the region's historical wetlands and more than 90 percent of its riparian corridors are gone or degraded.

Rice and Ducks

Despite this widespread loss of wetlands, the need for wildlife habitat in California hasn't diminished. The Central Valley continues to host between six million and eight million waterfowl each winter. How is that possible? Part of the answer lies with those original mining camps. During the gold rush, most of the food for those camps had to be imported, including large amounts of rice, which became something of a staple in the newly minted state. This homegrown demand encouraged the production of rice within the Central Valley, and rice was being grown there as early as 1911. 

Rice and waterfowl are a natural pairing not only in the kitchen but also in the wild. Winter-flooded rice fields (those flooded after harvest in the fall) now provide half the food available to ducks in the Central Valley. Each year nearly 600,000 acres of rice are planted in the northern portion of the valley, otherwise referred to as the Sacramento Valley. In a typical fall and winter, 300,000 to 350,000 acres of rice land in this region are flooded, providing essential habitat for wintering waterfowl. Clearly, waterfowl and other wetland wildlife were incredibly fortunate that rice was the chosen crop on many of the converted Central Valley wetlands. 

Water Is for Fighting

While rice agriculture is extremely important to waterfowl in the Central Valley, the 200,000 acres of remaining wetlands are equally important. Nearly all these wetlands are managed to provide large amounts of food for migrating and wintering waterfowl, and two-thirds of them exist on private duck clubs. Winter-flooded rice and managed wetlands have allowed the Central Valley to maintain its importance to waterfowl, but they both suffer from limited access to reliable and affordable water supplies.



Photo © MIchael Peters


When it comes to water, nothing has ever been easy in California. At almost 800 miles long and 250 miles wide, and with a huge diversity of terrain and climates, California is the most populous state in the union and the fifth-largest economy in the world. Yet for all its natural wealth, California has struggled to efficiently manage and allocate water for people, agriculture, and wildlife since reaching statehood in 1850.

There is a quote often attributed to Mark Twain: "Whisky is for drinking and water is for fighting." If gold was the priceless commodity that fueled California's growth in the 19th century, water is the natural resource that will decide its future. Virginia Getz, manager of conservation programs for Ducks Unlimited's Western Region, explains: "Part of California's issue with water is the sheer demand. We have a huge population, a huge agricultural economy, and wetlands on dozens of refuges and wildlife areas in the state. We also have to account for the water needs of fish in our rivers and estuaries. It's just an incredible demand on a system with only so much water available."

According to Mark Biddlecomb, DU's Western Region director of operations, figuring out how to properly allocate and supply enough water to satisfy all of California's commitments will be the state's biggest challenge over the next century. "There are water rights issues, regulations, overallocations of some water sources, and an ever-growing human population dependent on water. It's like peeling back a giant onion when trying to figure out who gets what and how much. And that doesn't even factor in the state's aging infrastructure that needs to be repaired to efficiently maximize water deliveries. It's a massive undertaking."





Public Policy Drives Conservation Success

Ducks Unlimited's public policy efforts are making a tremendous difference for wetlands and wildlife in California. Investments by the state and federal government into wetlands provide valuable resources for DU's science-based conservation work. DU works to build relationships with lawmakers and the public and to showcase how public funding is used to improve the state's natural infrastructure, restore wetlands, acquire important habitats, and purchase water for wildlife.

Water is the lifeblood of the Golden State. That's why, in 2014, DU submitted conservation language that became a part of California's water bond, known as Proposition 1, which provides funding for wetlands restoration and other water-related projects. Through a competitive grant process, DU has applied for and received funding from Proposition 1 and is using that money for conservation in California, including work at Gray Lodge Wildlife Area in partnership with the Biggs–West Gridley Water District.

In 2016, DU policy and conservation staff teamed up with other conservation groups to pass Measure AA in the San Francisco Bay Area. DU received a $6.2 million grant from Measure AA to help turn old salt evaporation ponds into fish and waterfowl habitat in the bay.

Ducks Unlimited also works extensively to educate California legislators on the ways the organization uses money from its event fundraising system to fund on-the-ground conservation and how changes to that system would imperil the benefits DU provides to hundreds of species that depend on the state's wetlands.

A Thirsty State

To truly understand California's complicated relationship with water, one must first understand the state's topography. California's multiple mountain ranges form a ring around the Central Valley: the Sierra Nevada and Cascade Ranges to the east, the Klamath Range to the north, the Coastal Range to the west, and the Transverse and Tehachapi Ranges to the south.

These ranges funnel water into the Central Valley, which is essentially a giant sink in the middle of the state. Here, rain and melted snowpack are pushed and pulled through the state's aging system of manmade canals, aqueducts, and dams by different regulatory bodies and water agencies who buy, sell, and ship water to meet the needs of the state's 39 million residents. This water is also used to irrigate nearly six million acres of farmland. A giant patchwork quilt of agriculture, urban areas, wildlife refuges, and other water-dependent entities up and down the state are thirsty for this precious water.

"It's an understatement to say it's complicated," Biddlecomb says. "The state has had to engineer almost the whole delivery system, so there's just not much of the natural course of water left anymore. Almost nothing, including most of our wetlands, gets water 'naturally' anymore."



Photo © GARY R. ZAHM






Partners in Conservation

To efficiently make use of the limited wetland habitat and declining water supplies, organizations in California have learned to work together to pool their resources. Ducks Unlimited has been conserving habitat across California since the 1980s, and almost every acre was conserved through some form of partnership. Because of the high costs of construction, land, and just about everything else in the state, working together with outside groups has become a necessity.

"We couldn't get anything done without partnerships," Biddlecomb explains. "Rarely can one group or agency afford to complete a restoration project on its own. Ducks Unlimited excels at bringing groups to the table and getting them to agree on a certain direction and cooperatively fund projects. It takes coordination, facilitation, and dollars. It's a lot of people coming together to get things done."

Getz adds: "There are seldom projects that would benefit a single interest in California. Most of these projects benefit a multitude of groups. The opportunity to get a project done here is so much stronger when we work with others."

The Future

As complicated as California's water issues are today, practical solutions for the future revolve around relatively simple concepts of teamwork, efficiency, and making sure every drop of water is maximized so that waterfowl, fish, and people can thrive. Ducks Unlimited is ready to lead the way.

"I think we've already seen some evolution with how DU approaches things," Biddlecomb says. "DU has gone beyond just restoring wetlands on wildlife areas or private lands. Now we're also looking at the bigger picture regarding infrastructure that needs to be replaced or improved so that the system can deliver the water it is supposed to. Californians are faced with such a massive challenge ahead when it comes to our water—we're going to have to do this together." 

Devin Blankenship is communications specialist, Dr. Mark Petrie is director of conservation planning, and Gary Link is director of public policy in Ducks Unlimited's Western Region.