birds taking flight from fallow rice field in winter

Episode 21: Dry Year Plans Taking Shape

The coming weeks will be busy in the Sacramento Valley, as highly-skilled pilots plant this year’s rice crop.

Farmers are no stranger to challenges, and this year is no different. Below-par rain and snowfall have led to water cutbacks of at least 25 percent valley wide, which will lead to an as yet undetermined drop in rice plantings.

Sean Doherty
Sean Doherty

“There are a lot of fields that won’t be planted on my farm and throughout the state because of a lack of water,” said Sean Doherty, rice grower in Dunningan. “That’s what you do in years like this. You cut back and work with what you have.”

Less rice planted has repercussions beyond farms and mills. Rice is an integral part of the Sacramento Valley, providing more than $5 billion to the economy and 25,000 jobs. Rural communities that depend on farming will be impacted, as well as the environment – fewer rice fields planted means less habitat for hundreds of wildlife species.

 “Every year, we’re concerned about species that are already listed as threatened, endangered or species of concern,” said Meghan Hertel, Director of Land and Water Conservation at Audubon California. “Unfortunately, in a drought, it’s not just the species of concern that we’re worried about – the ones with the low populations – we’re also worried about common birds.” A recent study from Cornell University study estimates a plunge of the overall bird population by three billion over the last 50 years.

Meghan Hertel
Meghan Hertel

She said rice fields are vital for wildlife, especially in a dry year like this one.

“Every year, rice fields are important for habitat,” she said. “That’s because, in the Sacramento Valley, we’ve lost 90 to 95 percent of our natural habitat, so much of the ground that birds and other wildlife are using is actually in active rice production. We call it surrogate habitat for birds and wildlife, and in some cases it’s providing two-thirds of the diet of wintering waterfowl.”

She said this dry year will mean birds will have to congregate on the fewer acres where water is on the landscape, which means less available food for wildlife.

Hertel said there is excellent collaboration in the Sacramento Valley, to support farms and the environment. “Partnerships, communication and collaboration are key. Working together, we can make the best of what we do have.”

Collaboration is also a key to helping the state’s struggling salmon population.

Jacob Katz
Jacob Katz

Jacob Katz, Lead Scientist at Cal Trout has been working with rice farmers and water districts for years now, and said tremendous progress has been made to help salmon. He said rice fields can be used to mimic the incredibly productive wetland habitats that were in the Sacramento Valley before it was developed.

“It means slowing water down across the floodplain,” he remarked. “It means spreading it out, creating the puddles that typified the floodplain wetlands before development of the valley, that’s similar to the surrogate wetlands that rice fields are managed as.  What we’ve found is those fields fill up with fish food, with bugs. It only takes three weeks or so to go from a dry field to a shallow, wetland-like environment, and three weeks later it’s teeming with bugs, with fish food. We’ve been working with farmers, water suppliers and reclamation districts to grow the food on these fields, but then to actively drain it back to the river where fish can access it in dry years like this. That’s a really important piece.”

“There’s extraordinary room for optimism,” he added. “We’ve shown that the Sacramento Valley can be resilient, can produce benefits for both people and for the environment. Look at the bird response over the last 30 years, as rice growers and water suppliers came together to offer our feathered friends some semblance of the habitat that they evolved in, that they were adapted to. And those birds recognized those flooded rice fields as wetlands…. We can do the same thing for salmon. We have every evidence to suggest that that’s true. That if we hit every link in the salmon’s life history, if we connect their juvenile and adult life phases, we can have a phenomenal response from our fish populations.”

Water management is always a balancing act, but the job is especially challenging this year.

Thad Bettner
Thad Bettner

Thad Bettner is General Manager of the Glenn-Colusa Irrigation District, the largest water district in the Sacramento Valley, spanning 175,000 acres, including rural communities, many rice farms and three federal wildlife refuges.  He is navigating through several subjects, including potential voluntary agreements and water transfers.

He said longer term additional water storage would pay major dividends in future dry years.

“Water storage would be huge,” he said. “We are looking at Sites Reservoir… we believe the time is now for that. One of the great things about Sites Reservoir is it’s downstream from Shasta Reservoir, so it provides this midstream benefit of being able to regulate the system and really manage for multiple benefits—water supply, meeting the needs of the environment and carryover storage. Sites would help meet all of those goals.”

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Episode Transcript

Jim Morris: May in the Sacramento Valley involves an interesting sight – high speed, low flying airplanes planting America’s next crop of sushi rice. In fact, I have an airplane heading my way right now! And there is excitement with a new season, but this year is not without its challenges. 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. I’m in Sutter County, watching precision GPS guided planting, and it is an amazing site. Even with the benefits rice has to our cuisine, economy and environment, we are not immune from impacts of a dry year.

Jim Morris: There will be many things to keep an eye on during this dry year. One of them is the environment. And here in the Sacramento Valley, we’re on the Pacific Flyway, so virtually every trip through this area, there are wonderful sites. I was at a farm this morning and they had a bald eagle sighting. So, that’s great. However, this dry year won’t be easy, not just for the cities and farms, but there are certainly pressure on our diverse ecosystem. Meghan Hertel is director of land and water conservation at Audubon California. And Meghan, as we have this dry year unfold, what are some of your concerns for wildlife?

Meghan Hertel: Water is essential, not just for human life, but also for wildlife. And here in California, we have a really interesting water cycle. So the rain falls in fall and winter, and it creates water in the ground, it feeds the habitat and it feeds the wetlands and the rice fields that birds are using. And then most of our waterfall is in the form of snowpack. And that snowpack is released throughout the year and used for our farms and cities, and also to create river flows and to serve the habitats throughout the year. And this year we didn’t get rain and we don’t have much snowpack. And that means impacts to our habitat and to our wildlife.

Jim Morris: Are there particular species you’ll keep a watch on as the year unfolds that you’re especially concerned about?

Meghan Hertel: Every year we’re concerned about species that are already listed as threatened or endangered or species of concern. So great examples of this are the salmon, least bell’s vireo, from the bird example, or yellow billed cuckoo. Also, the giant garter snake, which we find frequently throughout the Sacramento Valley associated with rice fields and wetlands. But unfortunately in a drought, it’s not just the species of concerns we’re worried about, the ones with the low populations. We’re also worried about common birds. So, Cornell University, last year released a study that showed in the last 50 years we’ve lost three billion birds, and it’s not just the rare ones, it’s actually the common birds. So in a year like this, where there’ll be less habitat on the ground and less food for birds, we worry about those common birds as well.

Jim Morris: How important are rice fields in the equation, particularly when you’re looking at a year when there’s not going to be a lot of water naturally on the landscape?

Meghan Hertel: Well, every year rice fields are important for habitat and that’s because in the Sacramento Valley we’ve lost 90 to 95 percent of our natural habitat. So, much of the ground that birds and other wildlife are using is actually in active rice production. We call it surrogate habitat for birds and wildlife. And in some cases, it’s providing two-thirds of the diet of wintering waterfowl. So that’s a big amount. Unfortunately in a year like this, we are seeing cutbacks, not just in race, but also in our wetlands. The water system that serves our rice serves our remaining wetlands as well. And so as we see the reduction of habitat, that means birds are going to have to concentrate in fewer areas and they’re going to have less food.

Jim Morris: One of the ways I hope that is helpful, are these great partnerships between organizations like yourself, rice growers, and other interested parties in the Sacramento Valley. Comment a little bit, please on those partnerships and how valuable they are, particularly in a year like this.

Meghan Hertel: Absolutely. Partnerships, communication and collaboration are key. When there are not enough resources, particularly water, that’s so important to all of us, to go around, we need to sit down and talk about how we use the limited amount of water that we’ve got. And that means using science to understand the trade-offs and then maximizing what water we have to reach multiple benefits. And so that’s supporting farms, but also saving some water to support habitat, or looking for ways to put water out on the agricultural landscape that both grows food and also supports habitat. The choices won’t always be easy, and we certainly are all going to feel a pinch this year and see cutbacks, but by working together, we can make the best of what we do have.

Meghan Hertel: One of the things we learned during the last drought, is that it’s very important to work together, to come up with scientifically sound collaborative solutions, to put water on the landscape when and where birds needed. A great example of this is the Migratory Bird Conservation Partnership, which is a partnership between Audubon, the Nature Conservancy and Point Blue Conservation Science. We’ve been working with rice growers and water districts for almost a decade. And when the last drought hit, we were able to put special practices out, putting water on rice fields in spring and early fall to support migratory shorebirds. And there were days where it was the only water on the landscape for birds. And this just shows the importance of collaboration in hard times like drought.

Jim Morris: The farm we’re at here in Sutter County, is dry, they’re working the fields, but it will have rice in it. And this is one of the places that I have seen cattle egrets in their marvelous breeding plumage. It is exciting to see the wildlife. And one of my favorite times is nesting season of shorebirds. Tell me a little bit about that. Obviously there will be a little pressure with less land available, but it is a marvelous sight to see the avocets, stilts, et cetera. So what are your thoughts when you see shorebird nesting?

Meghan Hertel: It really gives me hope. It shows that, when we are able to provide habitat here, that nature responds and it wants to have a fighting chance. What we do on the landscape will decide the future of the Central Valley, both for people and birds. And the nesting is a perfect example. So when they are able to find suitable places to nest, that means future generations of birds will be here, and that’s a hopeful sign.

Jim Morris: It’s a very busy time here in the Sacramento Valley rice country with planting underway. I’m with Sean Doherty, a third generation family farmer headquartered here in Dunnigan, near the Yolo Colusa County line. And he farms in Yolo Colusa and Sutter counties with his wife, Melissa, their three kids and famous rice dogs Skeeter and Miss Vegas. So, Sean, what’s happening on the farm right now?

Sean Doherty: Mainly right now, we are focusing on just putting water on the ground and getting the rice fields ready for water. We are not hurrying like we do in normal years, just because we’re just not planning a lot of fields because we don’t have the water for them. And so, consequently, we’re just getting it done and we’re not rushing and we’re not working overtime, we’re just watching our costs and trying to get this crop in as best we can. There’s a lot of fields that aren’t getting planted this year across the state, not just on my farm.

Jim Morris: When the water goes on to the rice fields and then seeding occurs, people may drive by and they see that water out there, but they may not fully understand the efficiency and the care that’s involved in that water. Can you comment a little bit about that?

Sean Doherty: That’s what we’re doing today in these fields right now, in a lot of them as we are going out there and running these GPS controlled drag buckets and leveling our fields to level. And so when we flood it, that way we can cover the soil with as little water as possible. You’re talking less than ankle deep. If you don’t sink in the mud, just an inch or two skim across these fields is all we need.

Jim Morris: You mentioned the muddy conditions out there and I’ve had a shoe or two lost in a rice field when I didn’t wear the right mud boots. So how important is that kind of condition for growing rice and using water efficiently?

Sean Doherty: It’s bathtub out there. I mean, it holds water like no other soil. You just fill up the soil profile and it doesn’t go anywhere. It doesn’t go percolate deep underground into the aquifer. In most places, it takes forever to do that. It’s just because our ground is heavy, heavy clay, and it’s the same type of ground when it gets wet and you try and walk on it and you get 10 pounds of mud on each boot, that’s the type of ground that we’re growing our crop of rice in. And it’s the best ground there is for growing rice because we don’t lose the water deep. It just, you’re filling up a shallow bowl, like a milk saucer, if you will, with a skim of water and then you’re flying your rice seed onto that. And that’s what we’re working with. So it’s really efficient for using that water. And there’s a whole lot of multiple efficiencies that we’re using across the state here to make the most of our water.

Sean Doherty: In my particular irrigation district, where I farm a fair bit of rice, is RD-108. And we have a recirculation system in this district where we can take water from the bottom of the district, and with two pumps, with two lifts, we can take water three quarters of the way back up to the top of the district and we reuse it again. And it allows us to a much more flexibility in these really dry years and to take less water off the river and leave more for the Delta outflows and for fish and for the environment when we operate this recirculation  system. It’s not something that you can do year in year out, because you’ll have degrading factors with using multiple uses of recycled water, but in these really dry, critically dry years, this is something that we can do to benefit the environment as well.

Jim Morris: I’m continually impressed with the diversity of creatures that are out this way. And you’ve been great to send me photos. And we had a game camera up that captured a lot of the nighttime activity. So you live and work in this environment. Tell me a little bit about the wildlife and some of the things that you see.

Sean Doherty: Just this morning, a big flock of pelicans riding the wind, giant garter snakes are the hardest animal to get a picture of, because as soon as you see them on the side of the road or side of the ditch bank and you stop to take their picture, they’re gone, they are so fast. Gopher snakes, all kinds of reptiles aplenty. Beavers, otters, wild turkeys, along the riparian corridors alongside where we get our water and where we deliver water out to the fields, pheasants, ducks, shorebirds, herons, cranes, you name it. There’s muskrats. I really like being out here and being a rice grower, just because you can see all of that. And I’m happy to provide that for the animals and make a living doing it as well.

Jim Morris: And it is going to be a challenge for wildlife too. So, how important are the rice fields this year? Because there’s even less opportunities for birds and all the other species that you talked about. It is very helpful to have that rice ecosystem in place.

Sean Doherty: I’m worried about having water for the waterfowl this fall and winter coming back into the Valley. And if we don’t have the water to put on these fields and these ducks and geese and swans and all the raptors that prey upon those on the flyway, if the habitat doesn’t return, I’m worried about what happens to them and the lasting damage it could cause. We have to figure something out, because you can’t have the primary wintering habitat for the Pacific Flyway not show up one year. If I’m going to stress about anything more so than the farm, it’s what’s to happen to the flyway.

Jim Morris: I’m in Willows speaking with Thad Bettner, general manager of the Glenn-Colusa Irrigation District, the largest water district in the Sacramento Valley,  covering about 175,000 acres. A significant part of that is rice ground. And GCID recently celebrated their 100th anniversary. And in the time I’ve known Thad, he’s not one to stand still very long, especially in a year like this. So how does your work change during a dry year like this one that we’re facing?

Thad Bettner: Jim like you said, there’s no time to stand still. These years are certainly one of the craziest ones that we face. There’s just a lot of work that we have to do both externally and internally, obviously just from an external side, really looking at the drought conditions, how they’re affecting the state. We look at things like Shasta Reservoir, status of fisheries, our operations, and then we look internally about, well, what choices are landowners making? How do we serve the multiple needs that we have within our district, from crop needs to environmental needs, to making sure we’re being good stewards of the groundwater. So, in a year like this, there’s just a lot of decisions that need to be taken into account. And a lot of those decisions happen daily. So it’s not just, you can make a decision, expect the rest of the year to play out, but we have to make those decisions on a daily basis.

Thad Bettner: We have about 175,000 acres, included in that is the three federal refuges. So working with them and their needs for water and getting water to them on a secure basis is a really important, but then all of our growers who need water from us, we need to make sure they have the information to make the decisions that they want to make this year. In these types of years, we know land is going to have to be idled because we just don’t have enough water. So we want to make sure they have the tools to figure out how much land can they farm, what crops do they want to grow this year? How much water do they have to grow those crops? And then, we’re also anticipating water transfers actually, which help us with operations and benefit the fishery.

Thad Bettner: So, do they want to participate in water transfer? So trying to get all that information out to them so they can make that decision is really important. And then obviously, the decisions they make affects decisions that we then make. And so, it is sort of a process where we have to kind of do a constant level of feedback with them, just to make sure they’re up to speed on decisions that we’re making and they’re making.

Jim Morris: Water transfers, as you mentioned very likely this year, how helpful are they in terms of overall water management, including for the environment?

Thad Bettner: Well, first look, water transfers are tough. Certainly, there’s economic issues resulting from that, there’s jobs that may be affected, there are some impacts that water transfers cause. And so I think we want to make sure we’re careful in how we consider them as a potential solution to some of our problems. And one of the unique things that water transfers off offer for us as a district, and I think for our customers, is that when we’re trying to benefit salmon and particularly this case, winter-run salmon, the thing that we can do with water transfers is, landowners, when they fallow their field, they don’t take that water. And what happens is we take that water and we actually leave it behind Shasta Reservoir through the season. And then we move that transfer water in the fall.

Thad Bettner: And one of the big benefits that we get is it actually increases the amount of water stored behind Shasta, where it also increases the amount of cold water that’s store behind Shasta. And then that asset can be used to provide cold water downstream to the river, to protect winter-run salmon as they spawn. So, it helps her eggs incubate and then it helps out migrating juveniles. So it really has a huge benefit to the system overall. So, in these types of really tight years, water transfers provide that benefit of being sort of a reasonable balance of protecting fish and then making sure the balance of our lands within the district continue to be farmed.

Jim Morris: Another way you protect fish is your amazing fish screen. I believe it’s the largest of its kind in the world. Can you comment about that?

Thad Bettner: In high school, I used to be able to run a quarter mile in a minute. And so, if you could run that fast, you could basically cover the length of our fish screen. So it is a pretty big feature. I have to say predecessors before me got that project done, it’s been in existence now for almost 25 years and it’s been just a solid asset for the district. I think one of the interesting things is, as that project came about, there just wasn’t a lot of knowledge known about fish screens, how to build them, how to make sure that they would provide a benefit to the species. So, I think our fish screen was kind of one of the first of its kind and really was a test case and a testbed for a lot of decisions that fishery managers had never needed to make before.

Thad Bettner: And I think one of the exciting things is, one, that it’s been a successful project. And then two, a lot of the other fish screen projects that are built on the Sacramento River, and I think other places in the country, have actually utilized a lot of the information that was gleaned from the actual construction of our project. And as well, some of the adaptive management. It was built, I think they got probably 85 percent of it right, but there was some about 15 percent of things that we’ve tweaked along the way to make it a better operating facility and continue to provide better protection for fish. And I think those lessons learned have helped other projects again, like in our area and other parts of the United States.

Jim Morris: Besides fish, there’s also a really vibrant environment in the Sacramento Valley with the Pacific Flyway. How important is it to maintain that environment?

Thad Bettner: We take seriously a lot of managing the trade-offs and decisions that we have to make. And certainly continuing to protect the Pacific Flyway and the needs of birds moving up and down this part of the Western US, is important. And the Sac Valley plays a huge part of that. So we talked about fallowing earlier. We don’t take lightly the fact that when we fallow lands, a good chunk of that is rice. And so, that’s the food that these overwintering birds are relying upon. And so really our goal is to make sure that we leave as much land in production. So, while we’re doing transfers, some land’s coming out, but really the goal is to keep the maximum that we can to provide that food base for the Pacific Flyway.

Thad Bettner: So, when we do years like this, we make sure acreage is spread around. So birds have places to fly. We coordinate with the local refuges and ask them, “Hey, where do you want lands? Where would it be okay to fallow lands or idle lands in here, versus what lands would you want to be in production?” Just because we know that every night you see birds fly off the refuge, they go out and they forage out in the rice lands. And during the day they fly back to the refuge. So the managers know how these birds are moving back and forth locally. So we really tried to make sure as we do some of the fallowing, we’re focusing on the needs of the Pacific Flyway and what those birds need.

Jim Morris: Our environment is impressive in the Sacramento Valley. I saw two bald eagles this morning in Willows, and we also offer significant habitat for the threatened giant garter snake. So, so glad that this effort is continuing. And in a dry year like this voluntary agreements have come up as a topic of discussion. Can you comment about what they are and how they may help?

Thad Bettner: Voluntary agreements is really what we believe is the right solution for the State Water Resources Control Board update of the Bay-Delta Water Quality Control Plan. And the board has really been looking at what they’ve called their unimpaired flow approach, which is, “Hey, we’ll just take a percent of the flow in the river, we’ll leave it in the river. And that’ll fix a lot of the fishery problems that we have.” And we just don’t believe it’s that simple of a solution to fix. It’s a lot more complicated in terms of timing of flow, we need a lot more habitat that we currently don’t have. And then we need a solid base of funding to get a lot of these projects done. So we’ve put together voluntary agreements as a proposal, and as an alternative, and we think our preferred alternative to that unimpaired flow approach, in 2020 the state had put out a proposal, what they believed was a voluntary agreement package.

Thad Bettner: And then unfortunately we got COVID, a month and a half later we had fires, and fortunately no floods this year, so we’re in drought. But I think we had about everything else pop-up that sort of just distracted us from getting back in the room and trying to get voluntary agreements done. So starting in about August, we got together with the water user community, and we really worked on our own version of what we thought was the right package to move forward and kind of had been working on that and telling the state we’re ready to meet with them and kind of waiting for them to get back to us.

Thad Bettner: And then oddly enough, right in the midst of a lot of this drought, decision making that we need to do, the state called us week and half ago and said, “Hey, we’re ready to start meeting and let’s get going on this.” So, now as we speak, we’re actually starting the conversations back up with the state to see if we can get a voluntary agreement package moving again. And obviously, we’re hoping not to do this in the midst of a drought because it just means that we’re trying to tackle other problems too, but we’re trying to add this to our plate and see if we can’t get this done.

Jim Morris: Sleep is overrated this year, I guess. So we have the short-term issues that we’re talking about, voluntary agreements, water transfers, obviously always maximizing efficiency. Looking longer term, how helpful would additional water storage be and who would benefit from that?

Thad Bettner: Water storage would be huge. I think obviously we’re looking at Sites Reservoir, one, it sits next to us. We’ve been involved in this project for decades. So we believe kind of the time is now for that. And I think one of the great things about Sites Reservoir is, it’s downstream of Shasta Reservoir. So it kind of provides this middle, midstream benefit and being able to regulate the system and really manage for multiple benefits. So, we’ve talked about water supply, meeting needs of the environment, carryover storage. So looking at not just this year, but next year. Sites would really help meet all of those goals. So we really think it provides a lot of benefit. And, in a year like this where we’re challenged with temperature and flows for a winter-run, Sites Reservoir would help integrating the system and provide those benefits too.

Jim Morris: I’m in Knights Landing, one of the areas that’s a hotbed for some interesting and promising research to help salmon, not only a key part of our environment, but a key indicator of water issues in our state. Jacob Katz is lead scientist at Cal Trout, an important partner in preserving and enhancing salmon in California. Jacob has a PhD in Ecology from UC Davis. And I have to say, perhaps a greatest opening line, short of “Call me Ishmael,” your bio starts with, “Jacob was born with gills.” That is so cool. And Jacob, pivoting to the dry year we’re having, there are some concerns. And what are your thoughts for our Sacramento Valley as we head into a dry year?

Jacob Katz: A dry year like this is a tough year to be a salmon. We’ve got used to the fact that it’s our flood years happen maybe every two, maybe four lucky, three out of every 10 years, that prop up our salmon populations. And it’s years like this one that are really rough because the Sac River and the other tribs are down low in their levees and those rivers are just real tough places to be a fish, when there’s very little habitat, when the water is low and clear and tends to be warm pretty early. So yeah, this is exactly the kind of conditions where we really have to think out of the box, out of the levees, to get those fish as much food and habitat as we can.

Jim Morris: How can you do that?

Jacob Katz: Well, the field that we’re standing in here, Jim, is one that River Garden Farms has been letting us trial some ideas with over the last four or five years. They’ve been a great partner as have a lot of the other growers in this region on the west side of the river, as well as over on the Sutter side, a lot of folks have been getting together to look at how we can use farm fields to mimic the incredibly productive wetland habitats that were here before the development of the Sac Valley for farms for our rural communities. So what’s that mean? It means slowing water down across the floodplain, it means spreading it out. It means really creating the puddles that typified the floodplain wetlands before development of the Valley.

Jacob Katz: That’s similar to the surrogate wetlands that rice fields are managed as, but what we found is those fields fill up with fish food, with bugs. It only takes three weeks or so to do that, to go from a dry field to a shallow wetland like environment. And three weeks later, it’s teeming with bugs, which are essentially fish food. But unlike the ducks and the geese, which have rebounded because of their use of these surrogate wetland habitats, the fish don’t have wings. They can’t access that fish food out here on the floodplain. And so we’ve been working with farmers and water suppliers and reclamation districts to grow the food on these fields, but then to actively drain it back to the river where fish can access it in dry years like this. That’s a really important piece.

Jim Morris: The very field that we’re in. I have seen you and your colleague, Jacob Montgomery in there with beakers and the fish food, the zooplankton is absolutely unbelievable. You don’t have to guess, you can actually see how much there is in there that could really help the fish. And how important is that this year when it’s so dry out there?

Jacob Katz: You can just ask the fish, the fish that we have reared in these fields, they swim around with their eyes closed and their mouth open. We call it floating filet if you’re a salmon, they are just… They’re gorging on the protein production from these fields. These fields are really mimicking the incredible productive capacity of wetlands. Sunlight is being captured by plants, those plants then are broken down by microbes in the shallow water that’s out here in a flooded field. Those nutrients then are taken up by bacteria. The bacteria are grazed upon by zooplankton, by small bugs, and those small bugs then are the foundation of the food web for fish. That’s how the Valley makes salmon, how it once made salmon.

Jacob Katz: And so in a dry year like this, when there’s very little out of bank flow in the river, when most of the river flow is stuck within those levees, it’s critically important that we reconnect this energy source with the river, that we reconnect the floodplain food web, the energy that comes off these flooded fields back with the river. And that’s exactly the program that we’ve been doing right here with RD-108 and River Garden, where we’ve been pumping this fish food-rich water back into the river and seeing how fast salmon grow on that

Jim Morris: RD-108 meaning, Reclamation District 108, which is about 30 miles north of Sacramento, and a very key player in terms of making things happen to help the environment. And it’s going to be a difficult year, but is there reason for optimism when you look at some of the partnerships that have been formed here?

Jacob Katz: Oh, there’s extraordinary room for optimism. It’s already right here. We’ve shown that the Sac Valley can be resilient, can produce benefits for both people and for the environment. Look at the bird response over the last 30 years, as rice growers and as water suppliers came together to offer our feathered friends some semblance of the habitat that they evolved in, that they were adapted to. And those birds recognized those flooded rice fields as wetlands. And, in the midst of all of this doom and gloom, you hear about the environment. We’re here in the Sac Valley, in the midst of this amazing recovery of waterfowl and waterbird populations, where when I was a kid in the Valley 30 years ago, not only was the sky black with smoke, but the birds were at all-time lows. And now, year in and year out, we get these really great counts.

Jacob Katz: The work that I’ve been talking about really can do the same thing for salmon. We have every evidence to suggest that that’s true, that if we hit every link in the salmon’s life history, in that chain, if we connect their juvenile and their adult life phases, we can have a phenomenal response from our fish populations. We’ve seen that in Butte Creek, and we can see it again in the Sacramento River, even in dry years like this, if we can re-imagine and re-operate our water and flood infrastructure to mimic natural processes to get this incredible food resource that is now stuck on the dry side of the levees, in these dry years we see that we can make it out here and move it back to the river where the fish can take advantage of it, where they can grow big and strong and have a chance even in dry years like this one.

Jim Morris: That wraps up this episode, but we will keep you posted as the year progresses. Thank you to Meghan Hertel, Sean Doherty, Thad Bettner, and Jacob Katz for their time and expertise. We appreciate you listening and we value your comments. You can go to to find out more.