Take a trip to Gray Lodge Wildlife Area, and it’s easy to see why it’s one of the most heavily visited wildlife areas in California. The Sutter Buttes, the world’s smallest mountain range, loom in the distance as thousands of ducks, geese and other waterbirds take flight from mist-covered ponds lined with stands of rugged cottonwoods and wispy willows.
The more than 100,000 birders and hunters who visit this unique state-managed wildlife area each year will continue to enjoy these spectacular sights in perpetuity thanks to a $52 million Ducks Unlimited infrastructure project scheduled to wrap up in winter 2023, weather permitting. Ducks Unlimited has overseen design and construction of 5 1/2 miles of upgrades to the canals that ship water from the Thermalito Afterbay reservoir north of Gray Lodge to the wildlife area.
The project also included replacing four county road bridges, seven large water control structures, three farm bridges and 45 structures that move water into farm fields. Along with shoring up Gray Lodge’s water supply, the project will protect and provide habitat for the endangered garter snake, which lives in and around Gray Lodge’s 9,100 acres. Ducks Unlimited’s partners on the Gray Lodge Water Supply Improvement Project included the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife and the Biggs West Gridley Water District.
Vince Thompson, a senior engineer at Ducks Unlimited who oversaw the work, said it compliments a decade of projects when Ducks Unlimited overhauled much of the water-delivery system inside the wildlife area itself. Those improvements gave the property's managers more flexibility on when and how they flood and dry out particular wetland units, Thompson said.
That flexibility is critical for refuge managers to maximize every drop of water the refuge does get, given how often droughts strain California's water supply and make deliveries less reliable across the Central Valley. For Thompson, seeing the habitat at Gray Lodge turn into something special because of his engineering work has been one of the high points of his career at Ducks Unlimited.
“It's a tremendous amount of pride that I have," he said. “I mean, I've been working on improving water supply and capability at Gray Lodge for two decades and watching the improvement of the habitat over those years is very rewarding.”