What is shaping up as the most significant drought in decades has impacted much of the West.
A lack of adequate rain, sizzling temperatures and a snowpack that all but vanished have led to major cutbacks in surface water deliveries, including to Sacramento Valley rice fields. This year’s rice acreage is about 20 percent lower than normal as a result.
A massive challenge is fast approaching. There’s a growing concern that there will be little water on the landscape after harvest. That water helps break down rice stubble, but most importantly, it is vital to the health and survival of millions of birds that spend their fall and winter in our region. Shallow-flooded rice fields provide more than 60 percent of the fall and winter diet for 7 to 10 million ducks and geese during their annual stay in the Central Valley.
The lack of water for wildlife is a major concern for those who see and appreciate the Pacific Flyway on a regular basis.
“My concern is that there isn’t going to be any water to put out there,” said grower Kurt Richter of Richter AG in Colusa. “What’s so critical to me is all of the surrogate habitat rice fields provide in that time of the year to the Pacific Flyway. You have shorebirds and waterfowl that are migrating from Canada all the way down to South America. We are a stopping point; a truck stop for them so to speak. They need that water out here, to in as a place for shelter and a food source. This is a deep concern to all of us.”
“It is super challenging right now,” said Manuel Oliva, Chief Executive Officer of Point Blue Conservation Science, a key conservation partner with California rice growers. “Millions of birds will be arriving. They’re going to be tired and looking for a place to rest, looking to refuel or settle in for the winter. There’s likely not going to be enough habitat for them. Some are going to try to move, and they’re going to use energy they do not have. That makes them more vulnerable to predation or other hazards. As they are squeezed in to reduced habitat, it can increase opportunities for outbreaks of diseases like cholera or botulism.”
“What we’re seeing is an unfolding disaster right in front of our eyes, from a waterfowl perspective,” remarked Jeff McCreary, Director of Operations for the Western Region of Ducks Unlimited, another longtime conservation partner with rice. “Desperate times call for desperate measures, and we’re going to need to do something more than just pray for rain. Typically, when we talk about disaster it’s from a social standpoint – people are suffering. This is an environmental disaster in which people and wildlife are suffering.”
Currently, our California Rice Commission survey indicates less than 25 percent of the usual acreage will be shallow-flooded. That’s insufficient to support our flyway visitors.
As a result, a coalition of conservation, water and agricultural groups are seeking $10 million from the Legislature and Governor, to fund groundwater pumping for wildlife later this year.
“Hopefully we’ll have some opportunities to utilize surface water in those areas where it’s available,” remarked Northern California Water Association President David Guy. “We know it will be limited. Hopefully, there’ll be some opportunities to pump groundwater in some other areas, to help spread waters out across the region, help the birds spread out across the region to avoid some disease issues that we’ve seen in the past. Hopefully, we can do our part in this valley to help birds. This fall we want to make sure we do everything we can to help the birds.”
Among those concerned about the health of the Pacific Flyway is Senate President Pro Tempore Toni Atkins.
“I think we should all be concerned,” Atkins said. “We’ve seen the devastating wildfires, the smoke, the strain on our energy supply, and now we’re certainly in the middle of another historic drought. We seem to say that more and more frequently. Climate change is here. It’s real, and it’s challenging our ability to produce food and energy. We have to work together to find solutions that are going to protect vital habitats, while at the same time maintaining a healthy agriculture industry. I think rice farmers know as well as anyone that it’s not fish or farms. Protecting ecosystems is just as critical for our own health, our own sense of well-being as it is for wildlife that call California home.”
Eileen Javora: Right now we are seeing an intense drought across the Western United States.
Jim Morris: Meteorologist Eileen Javora.
Eileen Javora: More than 90 percent of the land in the west is in drought conditions and nearly 60 percent or so is in extreme or exceptional drought.
Jim Morris: Northern California Water Association President, David Guy.
David Guy: Well, it’s really an extraordinarily dry year. And is what we’re finding is that it almost just keeps getting drier. There’s just less water out on the landscape. Than at least we’ve seen in any of our lifetime.
Jim Morris: An immediate focus in the Sacramento Valley is finishing the growing season and harvesting crops, which provide widespread benefits. Next up, averting a potential environmental disaster by seeking creative ways to get water on a parched landscape.
David Guy: Hopefully we’ll have some opportunities to utilize surface water in those kind of areas where it’s available. It’s going to be limited this year. We know that, and then hopefully there’ll be some opportunities to pump groundwater in some other areas to help spread waters out across the region, help the birds kind of spread out across the region to avoid some disease issues that we’ve seen in the past. And that hopefully we can just do our part in this valley to help birds. As we all know this valley is very committed to the Pacific Flyway and both the waterfowl as well as the shorebirds. And I think this fall, we want to make sure that we’ve done whatever we can to help the birds.
Jim Morris: The stakes are high, but many are focused on this critical subject.
Welcome to Ingrained: The California Rice Podcast. I’m your host, Jim Morris, proud to have worked with California farmers and ranchers to help tell their stories for the past 30 years. And this is no doubt one of the most challenging years during that time. A lack of adequate water is a growing problem, and it is getting drier on the landscape. I’m in Colusa visiting with grower, Kurt Richter. And Kurt, where are you with the growing season? And how’s the rice looking?
Kurt Richter: The rice looks good. We are coming out of the weed control stage of the season and working our way into heading.
Jim Morris: Tell me about heading and what that means?
Kurt Richter: Heading is when the rice is what we’d call heading out. That’s where the plant goes into the reproductive stage from the vegetative stage and produces its seed. Every grass plant produces seed, rice is technically a grass plant. And when it produces its seed that comes in the form of rice kernels.
Jim Morris: And the Sacramento Valley is a good place to grow rice and the warm days and cool nights work very well for it. It has been extremely hot, but we are into a more mild stretch. How does that help the heading process?
Kurt Richter: We have been recently in some pretty extended periods of a hundred plus degree days, and we are trending downward now. When you’re in the heading stage like we are now, which is followed by the pollination stage, you want temperatures to be a bit more mild, the hotter it is the more devastating it’s going to be to the pollination process. And that’s going to be difficult for kernels to fill properly in all those little seedlings that the plant produces when it’s in high heat.
Jim Morris: And it has been a challenging growing season with about 20 percent of the rice not planted this year in the Sacramento Valley because of the dry conditions. And we’re also entering another critical time. So after harvest a shallow amount of water is normally put into the fields which breaks down the rice straw and it times perfectly with the Pacific Flyway migration, but there are serious questions about the availability that water. What concerns do you have about that?
Kurt Richter: My concern is that there isn’t going to be any water to put out there. Several of the irrigation districts that rice farmers use in this part of the valley have already announced that there will not be any winter water available and that’s hugely concerning. I mean, from the farming side of things, that is how we decompose our straw, but that’s really secondary to me because we have other methods that we can go about doing that. What’s so critical to me is that all the surrogate habitat that rice fields provide in that time of the year to the Pacific Flyway, you’ve got shorebirds and waterfowl that are migrating, from Canada down to all the way down to South America, we are a stopping point, we’re the truck stop for them, so to speak.
And they need that water out here to have as a place for shelter. And they also, the waterfowl at least, utilize the food source of rice residue that gets left behind in the field. Just little kernels of rice that fall off the plant when you’re trying to harvest it, they find those, they root them out in the mud and they eat them. Not to mention the fact that the shorebirds who don’t eat rice grain so much as they eat organisms. Well, you have a flooded field, you’ve got all sorts of bugs and invertebrates swimming around out there. And that’s a fueling station for those birds too. So they rely on this area for generations as a place to stop, refuel, rests, nest, all sorts of things like that. But if this is a dry landscape, it’s not going to work and I don’t know what’s going to happen, but it is something that is of a deep concern to all of us.
Jim Morris: Millions of ducks depend on the Sacramento Valley for food and a resting place. The water situation is currently dire. Jeff McCreary is a biologist and director of operations for Ducks Unlimited’s Western Region. Jeff, your concerns in this area?
Jeff McCreary: We’re facing an unprecedented drought. This is not just a drought that’s in California. It’s a Pacific Flyway drought. It’s a Western drought, and it’s affecting birds all across this part of the country. What we’re seeing here is an unfolding disaster, right in front of our eyes from a waterfowl perspective. Waterfowl need water, and that water is typically in wetlands and winter flooded rice. This year we’re seeing reductions in both of those, in the acres of both of those.
Currently I see two issues. There’s the ongoing issue in the Klamath Basin, where birds that are breeding in the Central Valley of California are flying to the Klamath Basin, where there is very little water and the risk of a botulism outbreak is imminent. And I would expect that we will see really bad news in the papers sometime soon on that. The second issue is what happens when the rest of the birds and those birds and Klamath Basin come to the Central Valley and the Sacramento Valley to winter. Is there going to be water on the landscape? All signs point to very, very little. Shasta, Oroville, Folsom, record lows. Some small irrigation districts will have water for rice, but really desperate times call for desperate measures. And we’re going to need to do something more than just pray for rain.
Jim Morris: That something more will hopefully include help from the legislature and the governor to get more water for the flyway. A coalition of conservation, water and agricultural groups seeks $10 million to provide water for wildlife. Our California Rice Commission survey of growers indicates at the present time, less than 25 percent of the usual shallow flooded winter rice acres will have water on them this year. That is not enough to adequately support a healthy Pacific Flyway during peak migration.
Jeff McCreary: Well, there’s an opportunity that hasn’t existed in California for quite some time with some extra revenue that can be utilized to help with disaster. And typically when we talk about disaster, it’s from a social standpoint, people are suffering. This is an environmental disaster in which people and wildlife are suffering. One opportunity and one of the few levers that we have, and it’s a desperate lever to pull, is to subsidize groundwater pumping, to supplement what little surface water is going to be available for both rice lands and managed wetlands.
Jim Morris: Our conservation partners are so important for protecting wildlife in rice fields. And I’m in Petaluma at the headquarters of Point Blue Conservation Science, happy to see at the nearby park, some rice birds, a squadron of pelicans this morning, that was really cool. And I’m visiting with Mani Oliva, Chief Executive Officer of Point Blue. Mani has degrees in mechanical engineering. He’s worked at the Foreign Ag Service, at USDA, and his passion for nature was fueled while growing up in Guatemala. Mani, thanks so much for your time. And I know we don’t have Motmots or Scarlet Macaws in our local rice fields, or I haven’t found them yet, but what are your thoughts about the Pacific Flyway and the important role rice fields play for habitat?
Mani Oliva: We’re very lucky here in California to have these amazing birds here as part of the Pacific Flyway and rice fields are mainly important to these species and these birds. One of the things that we have to remember is that the Central Valley has lost over 90 percent of its wetlands over time. And I think that’s a really important number to remember, 90 percent of the wetlands are gone. And the idea that these birds are a declining species in North America, the Central Valley hosts over 5 million waterfowl and half a million shorebirds. And having this concept are having these rice fields. These flooded rice fields work in tangent or work in width. These natural wetlands provides this amazing habitat for these birds. It’s really critical. And we’ve already proven that flooded rice fields are amazingly powerful wetlands for these birds. I also want to sort of, as a tangent, bring these birds being part of the local areas and local systems brings, it’ s big for the economy, it’s big for culture and for producers as these birds are also helping to decompose rice straw and creating that healthy environment that we want.
Jim Morris: We have a concern this year because of the drought. And what thoughts do you have as we’re going to head into the big migration time, millions of birds depending on rice and some water out there. And it’s super challenging right now.
Mani Oliva: It is super challenging right now. And millions of birds will be arriving and they’re going to be tired and looking for a place to rest or look into refuel or looking to settle in for the winter. And there’s likely not to be enough habitat for them. So some are going to try to move, and they’re going to be using energy, energy that they do not have, and that makes them more sort of vulnerable to predation or other kinds of hazards. As well as these habitats, also, as they’re squeezed in, are opportunities for diseases like cholera or botulism that we have to be careful for. But one of the things that we have to remember, it’s not just this one year that we’re dealing with, we’re dealing multiple dry years, and that has a cumulative effect on these species. So we’re all looking also, trying to understand what is the long-term effects of all of these dry years on these species over time.
Jim Morris: Through our partnerships and creativity, we’re trying to help this drought situation to get a little more water on the landscape. How much do you value these creative partnerships between rice growers and organizations like Point Blue?
Mani Oliva: Honestly, none of this work could happen without these partnerships. We all have these gifts to bring, we all have these diversity of thoughts that are really important to solve these complex problems. We really needed this as all of us are the diversity of thought to really think through what are the opportunities and what are the challenges to the solutions that we can offer? Droughts are hard for everyone. They’re hard for people. They’re hard for birds, fish, even the bugs, all of these in it. What we need to do is we have this diversity of thought around how can we best resolve these issues? And come up with the proper solutions. Point Blue as an organization, we believe in this multiple benefits solutions, how can our natural resources provide multiple benefits? But the challenge is really is, how do we do this in continually growing pressures? And that just puts more emphasis on collaboration and diversity of thought and just working together. And we’re proud to offer our science to the community and work together to help make this happen.
Jim Morris: I’m visiting with Senate President Pro Tem Toni Atkins. And you’ve met with rice growers, and you’ve been out to the fields. There’s certainly more to California rice than providing America’s sushi rice. What are your thoughts about the important role Sacramento Valley rice fields play for wildlife?
Toni Atkins: Well, first and foremost, let me tell you, I love sushi rice, Jennifer and I partake a lot. I think California rice fields make an ideal environment for so many species of fish and birds. I’m proud that our state is home to a long stretch of the Pacific Flyway and millions, we know millions of migratory birds make their way through our skies every fall, every spring. And they need a place to rest and recover on that journey and rice fields support native fish as well. And I think it’s important that people know that Chinook salmon, it mimics the floodplains that historically have served as breeding grounds provides a rich source of food for fish and birds alike for thousands of years, before even the area being reshaped by development. So there’s so many reasons to recognize the role that rice plays in California.
Jim Morris: And our ecosystem is very special in California, and it certainly is a challenge this year with the drought. So what concerns do you have specifically for those millions of birds that are traveling through the Central Valley later this year and the potential that there may be little water on the landscape during this peak migration period?
Toni Atkins: I’m very concerned. I think we should all be concerned. We’ve seen the devastating wildfires, the smoke, the strain on our energy supply. And now we’re certainly in the middle of another historic drought. We seem to say that more and more frequently. Climate change is here, it’s real. And it’s challenging our ability to produce food and energy. Particularly as we face immediate climate impacts, we have to work together and we have to work together to find solutions that are going to protect vital habitats, while at the same time maintaining a healthy agriculture industry. I think rice farmers know as well as anyone that it’s not fish or farms, protecting ecosystems is just as critical for our own health, our own sense of well-being, as it is for wildlife that call California home.
Jim Morris: You mentioned about working together. There is a legislative option that could provide additional water to rice fields this fall in case the drought continues. And what are your thoughts about working to ensure that we do not have a collapse of this invaluable ecosystem in the Sacramento Valley?
Toni Atkins: I’m really proud that this year, the legislature and governor have made truly historic investments in climate resilience, certainly protecting wetlands and working lands, conserving ag land and advancing historic funds for a drought package to help farmers through these trying times. But I think it’s really likely that this drought will continue into the fall. I know that we have some optimism that next year will be an El Nino year, which will bring more rain. But the reality is that we’re likely to experience more sustained droughts as the world gets warmer. That’s the impact of climate change. I think we’re going to face some very difficult decisions ahead because of it. We’re going to have to engage the ag industry, even more so than we have in the past. We’re going to have to look to science and we’re going to have to work with community and my counterparts here in the Capitol to see what we can do to protect farmers and to maintain critical habitat. So I’m committed to that. I remain committed to that. I think it’s important. And I really appreciate the time to talk about this things.
Jim Morris: Hopefully help for the Pacific Flyway will come from the legislature. Hopefully the drought will end sooner than later. Thankfully, passionate people are committed to do what they can to help wildlife endure this challenge. That will wrap up this episode. Thank you to Senate Pro Tem Toni Atkins, Mani Oliva, Jeff McCreary, Kurt Richter, David Guy, and Eileen Javora for their comments and expertise. You can find out more at podcast.calrice.org. We also have a special drought page set up at calrice.org, which has a lot of information on impacts to California rice. We appreciate your comments, please subscribe and thanks for listening.