California wetlands straining to support drinking water, habitat

Drought highlights importance of conserving wetland habitats

SACREMENTO, California – Nov. 15, 2021 – Moderate fall rainstorms are putting renewed emphasis on the state’s threatened wetland habitats, responsible for keeping people and wildlife hydrated each year.

California has lost 95% of its original 4 million historic wetland acres. The loss of these marshes significantly impacts how much water reaches the taps of communities throughout the state.

The importance of conserving these wet habitats is even more pronounced when they are dry.

Wetlands play a vital role in recharging aquifers that are important for irrigation and drinking water. Wetlands capture drifting snow and runoff from summer storms and slowly release that water to underlying aquifers. According to the Public Policy Institute of California, the most over-drafted Central Valley basins lack ample supplies for recharge. Additional, and more efficient, wetlands would improve recharging capabilities.

Recent rainfall helped one of the state’s largest reservoirs, Lake Oroville, by bringing it up 20 feet over its record low conditions. But the reservoir is still more than 200 feet below full.

From a wildlife perspective, the drought and lack of wetlands have caused bottlenecks for migrating birds. Birds by the millions descend on California’s Pacific Flyway during migration, using wetlands as rest areas. The marshes and refuges that remain are decreased in size due to drought, forcing birds to keep moving or congregate on crowded water sources.

Numerous organizations are fighting to protect and enhance the remaining marshes throughout California. Representatives from Ducks Unlimited, the California Rice Commission, California Trout and the Northern California Water Association signed a Memorandum of Understanding in October to preserve, sustain and promote working agricultural land in California’s Sacramento Valley to benefit fish, birds and other wildlife.

Ducks Unlimited, the leader in wetlands conservation, has invested more than $336 million to conserve nearly 800,000 acres over the last 30 years.

“The few remaining acres of wetlands must now provide habitat for millions of migratory birds and other fish and wildlife, as well as reduce flooding impacts and provide recreational opportunities for people,” said Jeff McCreary, Ducks Unlimited director of Western Region operations. “Wetlands and people both need water to survive. We are still in a Pacific Flyway-wide drought, and now is the time to work together so residents and wildlife can not only survive but thrive.”

Rice producers are an invaluable partner in putting more land on the ground for migrating birds.

“The early fall rains have provided great benefits to rice fields, including improving this year’s difficult habitat conditions for millions of birds and breaking down rice straw following harvest. Although the drought persists, this early influx of rainfall provides some relief for migrating wildlife,” said Paul Buttner, California Rice Commission environmental affairs manager.

“Having strong partnerships with Ducks Unlimited and other conservation groups is essential to providing the greatest benefit to the millions of birds that depend on Sacramento Valley rice fields and adjacent wetlands for habitat. Innovative thinking and creativity are vital to ensure the best results for the Pacific Flyway especially during this ongoing drought,” Buttner said.

Wetlands and wetland agri-systems like rice production require water to be applied in a timely manner to achieve optimal seed production. Water is commonly delivered through conveyance systems from the source to the wetlands. In areas where multiple demands place stress on limited water supplies, efficient conveyance systems are crucial to reduce water loss. Ducks Unlimited engineers work with landowners to improve water conveyance systems so that less water is lost to the surrounding landscape as it is being transported.

McCreary said the fall storms are a great start, hydrating parched ground. While not a drought breaker, it did rain enough that many dry-harvested rice fields in the southern Sacramento Valley that are normally flooded began to pond shallow water. This is good news for the ducks already arriving after passing quickly through the dry Klamath Basin and Great Salt Lake.