Episode 20: Moving Forward in a Dry Year

Tractors are working ground in the Sacramento Valley, as the 2021 rice season is underway.

Whether it’s farmers, those in cities or for the environment, this year will pose challenges due to less than ideal rain and snowfall during the fall and winter.

Jon Munger

At Montna Farms near Yuba City, Vice President of Operations Jon Munger said they expect to plant about one-third less rice this year, based on water cutbacks. As water is always a precious resource in this state, rice growers work hard to be as efficient as they can. Fields are precisely leveled and will be flooded with just five-inches of water during the growing season. Rice is grown in heavy clay soils, which act like a bathtub to hold water in place. High-tech planting and harvest equipment also help California rice farms and mills operate at peak efficiency.

Expectations of less rice acreage will impact other parts of the valley – rural communities, allied businesses and the environment – birds and fish.

“The Central Valley is arguably one of the most important waterfowl areas on the planet,” remarked Jeff McCreary, Director of Operations for Ducks Unlimited’s Western Region. “It’s because of all of these birds coming down the Pacific Flyway… and when we think about the drought, it’s going to affect that wintering habitat. Is there rice on the landscape? Is there water for wetlands? How do we make sure that those populations are in as good enough condition that when they go back to the breeding ground, they can have a successful year.”

Jeff McCreary

McCreary said rice fields are critically important for wintering waterfowl, supporting 60 percent of the food energetics these birds need.  He said of all of the duck species, the Mallard is perhaps the most impacted by dry weather in California.

Another environmental concern during dry weather is the wild salmon population, which faces significant challenges.  However, farmers, water districts, conservationists and others are working hard to find solutions.

“The salmon rice work is among the most exciting work I’ve ever been a part of, “said Andrew Rypel, an associate professor and the Peter B. Moyle and California Trout Chair in Coldwater Fish Ecology at UC Davis in the Department of Wildlife, Fish & Conservation Biology. Rypel is one of the key participants in pilot salmon research, including raising juvenile salmon in winter rice fields, then releasing the fish into the ocean. So far, results with the project have been very positive.

Andrew Rypel

Another key project to help salmon is putting a shallow amount of water on rice fields in the Sacramento Valley after harvest, which creates “fish food”- zooplankton – which is then released into the river to help feed wild salmon runs.

Water managers always have a balancing act to meet the needs of their customers, and dry years provide even more careful consideration.  Lewis Bair, General Manager of Reclamation District 108 in the Sacramento Valley, is one of those navigating through this dry year, which includes creative approaches with water, including the likelihood of transfers.

“In a dry year, our folks would still love to farm, just like they always love to farm,” he said. “But in these types of years, we end up kind of sharing the pain by doing water transfers. Sometimes, it’s better to move water around for the whole system. You end up being able to achieve other benefits. It really is a short-term solution. We need to have a more reliable water supply for California, and I’m hoping that the long-term vision and long-term investments will help reduce the need for those sorts of transfers.”

Lewis Bair

Bair said building Sites Reservoir would be a major help to the state’s water future, providing new storage and flexibility to re-operate the system for water use efficiency.

“I think it’s the most promising thing we can do from an infrastructure perspective,” he added. Munger, McCreary, Rypel and Bair all have different responsibilities, but they share a common goal- to help our region withstand dry years, including a healthy ecosystem and sufficient water for cities and farms. They all agree that the level of cooperation is great in the Sacramento Valley, as evidenced by the scores of voluntary, collaborative projects that have been done to help maintain the Pacific Flyway and enhance the wild salmon runs.

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Episode Transcript

Jim Morris: Tractors are in the field and work is underway to prepare ground throughout the Sacramento Valley for rice planting. An old challenge has returned, one we faced in the past, that will impact virtually all Californians. The question before us, how to navigate through a dry year with subpar rain and snowfall?

Jim Morris: Welcome to Ingrained, the California Rice Podcast. I’m your host, Jim Morris, proud to have worked with California farmers and ranchers for more than 30 years to help tell their stories. Over that time, there have been years of abundant water and dry years, which provide challenges, and this is one of those years. I’m in the Yuba City area, one of many areas of our valley where fields are being prepped for rice planting. Jon Munger is with Montna Farms. John, what’s happening out here today?

Jon Munger: Today we’re starting our field prep with chiseling. It is opening the ground up. It’s the first piece of equipment that we use since the rice fields have been flooded for the wintertime.

Jim Morris: Jon, looking at it from a longer-term perspective, what are your thoughts as you are going to enter your very busiest time of the year?

Jon Munger: Over the years, we’ve had many dry years. We’ve dealt with a COVID pandemic and, like we did last year, we quickly implemented the policies to keep all of our workers safe in the field and our workers that we have here, they’re spread out quite well. They’re driving their own tractors and we implemented policies last year that worked very well to keep everybody safe and we’re planning to do the same this year. So, it’s no different now rolling into the drought that we’re currently facing. We’ve had dry years in the past. We always will get through them. It does affect our local rural communities. A lot of folks depend on the farming activities that we have out here. For our farm, we’re looking at potentially growing a third less of our acres this year and that’s definitely an impact.

Jim Morris: One thing people may not know about rice is of course we have this season coming up, the harvest will be in the fall, but rice is stored and milled according to order essentially year round. So Jon, tell me a little bit about how rice is milled and marketed right now and what it means for the consumer.

Jon Munger: Each and every year during harvest rice is delivered to many different dryers throughout the valley. It is then dried and stored until millers and marketers make orders, and then rice is shipped onto mills and milled and shipped out there to whatever buyer or whatever location it’s going to. Last harvest crop 2020 is being stored and will be used all the way through this year. Then come this fall, the 2021 crop will go back into storage and will be used in during the year of 2022.

Jim Morris: That really helps in a year like this because there is rice, it’s already in storage, it’s already going to be shipped to consumers at home and abroad. So that helps us during dry years like this.

Jim Morris: It’s important when looking at a dry year to talk with someone who manages water on a daily basis. Lewis Bair is general manager of Reclamation District 108 on the West side of the Sacramento River, about 30 miles north of Sacramento, and they represent about 75 square miles of agricultural land and rural communities. Lewis, how does your job change during a dry year?

Lewis Bair: Most of it stays the same. I mean, watershed management is a long-term vision, a long-term exercise in how you manage water. But, during a dry year, a lot of people are interested in that and the impacts are more severe because we don’t have enough water to go around. So, I do a lot of education during these years to explain the reasons why we’re making the trade-offs that we’re making with water management. There are things that we do to help spread the water around a little bit more during these dry years.

Jim Morris: The decisions made in a dry year aren’t always easy. You obviously want to make sure that the needs of your district are as whole as they can be, but will you also try to reach out and help some of your neighbors, if that’s possible?

Lewis Bair: In a dry year, our folks would still love to farm just like they always love to farm, but, in these types of years, we ended up kind of sharing the pain by doing water transfers. Sometimes it’s better to move water around with those transfers for the whole system. You end up being able to achieve other benefits. It really is, though, a short term solution, right? We need to have a more reliable water supply for California and I’m hoping that the long-term vision and long-term investments will help reduce the need for those sorts of transfers.

Jim Morris: How helpful would Sites Reservoir be if it can be constructed and available down the road?

Lewis Bair: Well, Sites Reservoir does something that climate change is kind of unwinding right now, right? So climate change means water, more precipitation as opposed to snowfall. What happens with that is we lose our storage over winter. Sites Reservoir is kind of perfectly situated in the middle of the system to provide both some new storage and some flexibility to re-operate the system. So, you can kind of think about it as a storage and a water use efficiency project rolled into one. I think it’s the most promising thing we can do from a infrastructure perspective.

Jim Morris: The Sacramento Valley is a unique place and one of the ways it is, is the Pacific Flyway and the amazing wildlife we have. There’s also really an emphasis on helping salmon, too. How important is it from a water management perspective but also for someone who lives here to try to help the ecosystem as much as possible?

Lewis Bair: I think it’s super exciting right now because we have a long-term vision for the Sacramento Valley that I think supports a reliable water supply, a healthy environment, and an economy for the State of California. It’s really dependent on that reliable water supply. So, in the Sacramento Valley, what that means is taking a look at what impacts some of the flood control system and water supply system development created. It impacted species and those species impacts are affecting water supply. What’s exciting is that we found out we can unwind some of those flood control impacts. We can restore those floodplains that are really the energy that kind of fueled our amazing environment in the Sacramento Valley. So if we can do that, I think we have a very positive outlook for the future.

Jim Morris: This isn’t something that happened yesterday. I mean, these things have been in works for many years with millions of dollars behind them. So how long has this been an area of dedication and how important is it to you personally as well, to try to have the best environment we can here?

Lewis Bair: Well, I think everybody loves the Sacramento Valley up here. Everybody is super excited. Two decades ago, we started with the bird programs and that’s really what I think woke folks up here in the Sacramento Valley, that these wetlands are so important to kind of fueling our environment. We’ve seen now that that applies to fish too, and that’s really the door that’s been opened, that’s changing things for water supply reliability. The floodplains that were separated from the river when we constructed our flood control system, we now believe they’re extremely critical to restoring the fisheries. If we can restore the fisheries, that sure takes a lot of pressure off of the water supply system.

Jim Morris: Throughout the Sacramento Valley over the last 20 years, there have been about 155 different projects that have voluntarily been done cooperatively to aid salmon. One of the interesting ones here in Reclamation District 108 that may be happening again later this year, hopefully, is getting some water on the floodplain to provide fish food. Can you comment a little bit about that? It’s a really interesting concept, but perhaps even more valuable this year than normal because of the dry year.

Lewis Bair: Yeah, so historically we built a flood control system and drainage systems that essentially kept water from staying on the land long enough to produce food, phytoplankton, that we all hear that fish eat. But what we’ve learned is that the rice fields that we farm in work perfect during those winter months to hold water. So, we have a program where we will flood and hold water, produce phytoplankton and drain that back to the river to help support the fishery. This can also be done on the floodplains in the bypasses. So it’s really an exciting program. We think fundamentally it’s one of the biggest things affecting juvenile salmon out migration.

Jim Morris: One thing that is clear in the Sacramento Valley is the collaboration that’s happening between agriculture and the environment, communities, water districts. How important is that approach in a year like this?

Lewis Bair: Well, it’s super exciting. We have so many talented partners that are coming together to push forward on these floodplain efforts, at the fishery efforts. It’s really wetlands with birds and the fisheries. So we have NGOs, state and federal partners, local water agencies, and landowners all on the same page and driving this forward. I think it’s the kind of partnership that’s going to make change in the Sacramento Valley.

Jim Morris: The environment is an important part of the Sacramento Valley, and there are some challenges heading into this dry year. Jeff McCreary heads up the Western Region for Ducks Unlimited and Jeff, before we get into that, a milestone for Ducks Unlimited with 15 million acres conserved throughout North America. That’s awesome news. Can you comment a little bit about that?

Jeff McCreary: Yeah, Jim, it’s fantastic. The 15 million acre mark is a remarkable achievement for the Ducks Unlimited family of organizations, that includes Ducks Unlimited Incorporated here in the United States, Ducks Unlimited Canada and DU de Mexico, which covers Mexico. So we’ve got from Los Mochas, Mexico to Yellowknife, Canada and everything in between has been conserved, whether it’s protected, restored, improved up to the 15 million acre mark. We’re just really proud to be able to celebrate that with our partners and our members and our volunteer leadership.

Jim Morris: That is awesome. We are heading into a dry year. We’re going to need all of those skills. You’re a wildlife biologist. What are some of your thoughts heading into this dry year? Your concerns about waterfowl health in the Sacramento Valley.

Jeff McCreary: Well, Ducks Unlimited takes a continental approach to waterfowl conservation, and, when we look at the Pacific Flyway, we think about where are the birds coming from, where are they going to, and then where are they going back to? So, they’re coming from Canada and the breeding grounds, and they’re coming to California for the winter. The Central Valley is arguably one of the most important waterfowl areas in the planet, and it’s because of all these birds coming down to the Pacific Flyway here in the Central Valley, in this narrow band of habitat that is comprised of wetlands and agricultural working grounds. When we think about the drought, it’s going to affect that wintering habitat. Is there rice on the landscape? Is there water for wetlands. How do we make sure that those populations are in as good enough condition that, when they go back to the breeding ground, they can have a successful year?

Jeff McCreary: The remarkable thing about waterfowl is that they have a large clutch sizes, like up to 12 eggs, so they can be responsive to the good times and the bad times. Our job this year is to make sure that they’re in good enough condition in these bad times so that when the good times come around, they’ll be able to respond and grow at their population.

Jim Morris: So as we head into this year, how important are rice fields in this equation when you talk about ducks along the Pacific Flyway?

Jeff McCreary: Rice fields are critically important for the wintering population of waterfowl. They support 60 percent of the food energetics that waterfowl need during the winter. Now, rice and wetlands have this interplay. So the birds move back and forth between both types of habitats, but with rice, what we are doing now with our planting, we’re getting ready to get out in the fields and get the rice planted, so that’s really going to drive how much energetics is out there in eight months from now.

Jim Morris: Are rice fields more important than a drought time? About the same? Do you have a thought on that? How much do we need rice to keep the population healthy?

Jeff McCreary: Well, we certainly need rice to keep the population healthy and ducks are just one of the waterfall guilds that we have. Of course, geese and white-fronted geese are growing in numbers and so rice certainly play an important role for those birds as well. When we look at the Sacramento Valley, wetlands and rice agriculture use the exact same water infrastructure and water delivery system the rest of the valley uses. So, it’s important to look at both wetlands and rice as a whole unit, because the water comes from the same place.

Jim Morris: Is there one duck species in particular that is especially dependent on the Sacramento Valley habitat?

Jeff McCreary: Yeah, I’d say the iconic California bird is the Mallard, and over the last 10 years and the last 10 year drought, we saw significant declines in the California Mallard population, nearly by half from what it was. We went from 400,000 to somewhere around 200,000 birds. If you drew a graph of that and you paralleled that graph with the graph of the water years, you would see this decline over time. In the last several years where we had some better water years, we’ve actually seen an increase in the Mallard population. So that’s a concern going forward.

Jim Morris: How important are the partnerships between rice growers and conservation groups like Ducks Unlimited?

Jeff McCreary: The partnerships are everything. Ducks Unlimited never does anything by ourselves. It’s always with somebody else, whether it’s a grower or whether it’s with an association or whether it’s with a federal or state or local agency. Everything that we do is by partnership. In times like these, when drought and stress is going to be out there, it’s all that much more important for stakeholders to come together and find those innovative entrepreneurial solutions to deal with some of these challenges that we’re facing.

Jim Morris: What are your thoughts when you see that big flock of birds that’s taking off from a rice field? I mean, to me, I just have a big smile on my face when I see that.

Jeff McCreary: It’s a spectacle of nature, and if no one’s been to the Gray Lodge Wildlife Area or the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge to see the waterfowl fly offs in the evening, I really strongly encourage you to do that. We are blessed to be in this part of the world, with this amazing waterfowl population that comes here and they’re here for a reason and the things that we do on the landscape with our wetland management, with our working agriculture and riceland management, that’s what keeps those birds here, that’s what keeps them coming back, that’s what sends them back to the breeding grounds to be successful and do it all over again.

Jim Morris: What does this dry year mean for fish in California? Probably a lot of unanswered questions, certainly a big subject, not just for environment, but it also impacts water to cities and farms. Andrew Rypel is an associate professor and the Peter B. Moyle and California Trout chair in cold water fish ecology at UC Davis in the Department of Wildlife, Fish and Conservation Biology, and that’s probably the longest title I’ve ever seen, but that’s all important. Andrew, what are your comments as we head into this dry year, concern for the wild salmon population, and maybe what we can do here in the Sacramento Valley?

Andrew Rypel: Droughts are difficult times for fishes in general. However, our native fish fauna in California are well adapted to cyclic climate patterns where they are adapted for dealing with drought cycles and wet cycles, and that’s part of the business of living in the Mediterranean climate for these species.

Jim Morris: You’re participating with many others in some pretty interesting research that I think could help in the long run. Can you comment a little bit about some of the work that you’re doing with rice farmers and how it may help in the longer term?

Andrew Rypel: The salmon rice work is some of the most exciting work I’ve ever been a part of. It’s based on the idea that the Central Valley was once a giant floodplain wetland ecosystem complex, and the water originated in the mountains much like it does today, and would spread out over the valley floor and the native fish and wildlife really evolved to capitalize on those resources. It’s abundant food for fish, abundant for birds, for Tule Elk, things like that. Of course, much of that is gone. However, there’s an increasing awareness that we’ve got a lot of acreage, roughly 500,000 acres of rice, which is not a perfectly natural wetland, but it can approximate some of the important wetland processes that can facilitate the life cycle of native species, particularly fishes in my case.

Andrew Rypel: So, there have been a lot of really interesting work done with migratory waterfowl and highly successful NRCS programs that were developed that, in my opinion, it looks like it has arrested the decline of migratory birds on the Pacific coast. So a lot of people have been looking at that and saying, “If we can do that for birds, why can’t we do that for fish?” So we’ve been working with the California Rice Commission, with other science partners to really kind of pilot how this could work for fish in the Central Valley. So we’ve been growing salmon on bypass rice fields, looking at how well they grow, how well they survive in these fields when they’re flooded in the winter time, and also how well they survive out in the Pacific Ocean.

Andrew Rypel: To sum it up in a really short way, the results are very positive. Salmon grow really well in these habitats. They put on weight very fast. Just within a month they can go from 30-40 millimeters in length all the way up to 70-80 millimeters in length. So they get big, fast, and that’s important because it tends to time these fish up with the natural flow regime that these rivers experience. So baby salmon tend to have better survivorship when there is more water in the rivers and more food in the rivers. If we can grow them bigger, faster so that they get out on the high tide of the rivers earlier in the year rather than later in the year when the river is low and doesn’t have much food and it’s full of predators like striped bass, that’s just a good thing. So, we think that rice fields could play a role in fish conservation in California, much like they have for bird conservation before.

Jim Morris: Not only raising salmon in rice fields, but also fish food. How positive are you on that approach and how important would it be in a year like this to have more food in the river for the wild salmon?

Andrew Rypel: Both concepts are extremely important. There are certain fields, rice fields, that flood naturally, so fish can come on those fields and off those fields in a volitional way. They want to be there and they want to spend time in these fields. But that footprint is finite and so there’s a lot of other rice field that could be useful in other ways. One of those ideas is to grow fish food in those fields. So I’m extremely positive about this idea because what we know is that these are productive habitats to just grow a ton of zooplankton, which is basically the fish food that we’re talking about.

Andrew Rypel: Most of those 500,000 acres are on the dry side of the levee. They’re not exposed to regular flooding. If we could learn how to grow fish food, and then drain those fields strategically so that fish that are actually moving through the river system and the river network will have food resources when they need them, when they’re migrating, when they’re vulnerable, we think we can also leverage the fitness and the health of populations that way as well. So it’s a bit of a jigsaw puzzle, but these things fit together and we think they fit together fairly nicely. There are probably other ways to use these habitats that we haven’t thought about yet. So we spent some time thinking about that as well. So it’s exciting. Something like this only happens when you have a lot of partners at the table that are willing to work together and help the situation.

Andrew Rypel: Obviously I’m a scientist, I’m at UC Davis. There’s a whole team of scientists at UC Davis that are interested in this. California Trout is an NGO that we work with quite regularly that’s been at the forefront of this project as well. The California Rice Commission, obviously, a crucial partner for linking in with the actual growers, with the landowners. USDA-NRCS program has been funding a good chunk of our pilot research, trying to figure this out with the goal that we could eventually have a practice standard that growers could enroll in, to participate in these practices to really actuate these conservation practices at scale. Then we work with so many of the agency scientists, managers, partners, whether that’s NOAA Fisheries, CDFW. We spend a lot of time communicating with CDFW, DWR, water managers throughout the Central Valley. Everybody’s kind of involved at some level and we communicate with all those folks quite regularly, and need them.

Jim Morris: The Sacramento Valley is a one of a kind place with great natural resources and another strength, a lot of people, including those you’ve heard today, dedicated to keeping it that way. Dry years are challenging to be sure, but there are many people devoting a lot of time to doing the most with the water that is available.

Jim Morris: We’ll, of course, keep you updated on planting, the growing season, harvest and much more on future episodes of Ingrained. For now, that wraps up this episode. Thank you to Jon Munger, Jeff McCreary, Lewis Baer, and Andrew Rypel. You can find out much more and listen to past episodes at podcast.calrice.org. Thanks for listening.