Since fundamental changes were made to the way rice straw is managed following harvest in the early 1990s, Sacramento Valley rice country has steadily grown as a vital rest and refuel stop for millions of birds. Local rice fields not only provide habitat for nearly 230 wildlife species, the value of rice fields for the environment is proving to be even greater during drought years, because there is less water on the landscape and fewer habitat options.
What’s next for the environmental crop? If promising research by the Rice Commission and UC Davis pays off, Sacramento Valley rice fields may one day help dwindling salmon runs.
The third year of field work for the salmon project has just completed, and the last of the baby salmon raised on Steve Neader’s Sutter County rice farm have been released and are heading out to the ocean. Through sophisticated tagging, their journey will be studied. The ultimate hope is that rice fields specifically managed for this purpose will provide an even greater role in preserving and enhancing the California environment.
“I’m extremely optimistic about it,” remarked Andrew Rypel, one of the study leaders and professors in the Department of Wildlife, Fish & Conservation Biology at UC Davis. “All of the data we have collected points to the fact these fields are going to be helpful for, not just salmon, but lots of native fishes.”
There were new elements in the latest year of the project that will ultimately help researchers adapt the habitat management strategy and understand prospects for future success.
“This is the first time we’ve ever done the project on full size rice fields, with about 125 acres devoted to testing the practice at scale, “ said Paul Buttner, Environmental Affairs Manager of the California Rice Commission. “One of the things we needed to make sure is that we could allow the fish to move freely through all of the checks in the field and out of the field when they want to, which is called volitional passage. We put in specialized boards with holes and notches to allow the fish to move through the system entirely.”
Buttner stressed the importance of partnerships to make this multi-million dollar project successful, including the scientific research from UC Davis and other technical partners.
“It would not be possible without funding, that comes first and foremost from USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service,” he said. “They provided over half of the funding for the project. All of the funding they provide has to be matched with private sector contributions, both financial and in-kind. Syngenta and State Water Contractors have really stepped up with major contributions, and we have a long list of other sustaining contributors as well. The full sponsorship list can be seen at http://salmon.calrice.org/#Sponsors.”
As the salmon left the rice fields to start their journey to the ocean, it was a somewhat emotional time for researcher Alexandra Wampler of UC Davis.
“I’m very excited,” Wampler said. “I can’t wait to track their migration to the ocean. We have a very dense receiver array, so we should be able to track each step they take, and it’s going to be very exciting.”
It will take a while longer to determine the viability of the project, but those involved remain optimistic that, perhaps one day, Sacramento Valley rice fields will add a significant new area to their environmental benefits.
“I think that rice fields have the same opportunities for the salmon as they did for waterfowl,” said Carson Jeffres, research ecologist at UC Davis. “It’s a little bit different. It takes different opportunities because fish can’t fly, so you have to make it available for them, as opposed to having it just available for them to fly to. There’s those same possibilities that we have, and I think that we’ve really turned a big corner in doing that, and we’re starting to see those benefits being realized on the landscape right now.”
Jim Morris: The environment holds special importance in California, and salmon represent one of the most beleaguered species in what now is year three of a major drought. There is a ray of hope in the form of a partnership being lived out in the rice fields of the Sacramento Valley.
Jim Morris: Welcome to Ingrained, the California Rice podcast. I’m your host, Jim Morris, proud to have worked with the state’s farmers and ranchers for more than three decades to help tell their stories. Environmental stewardship among the rice industry is unparalleled. Not only do Sacramento Valley rice fields serve as a vital part of the Pacific flyway migration of millions of ducks, geese, shorebirds, and other species, those same fields offer great promise to help salmon.
Jim Morris: I’m at the UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences, where researchers play a pivotal role in exploring how local rice fields might help salmon. I’m speaking with research ecologist, Carson Jeffes. First of all, Carson, salmon in California have been struggling. What are some of the factors that have led to that decline in their population?
Carson Jeffres: They face multiple threats, both in the freshwater environment where we’ve experienced drought for multiple years. We’re on our second major drought in the last 10 years, which is probably much more of a long term drought. Water and fresh water environments is limited, but also there’s other factors from thymine deficiency coming back from the ocean. It’s just one thing after another that they’ve experienced over the last, probably, a hundred years. Now, we’re starting to see the culmination of climate change and management really affect the populations.
Jim Morris: Rice fields may help in two different areas. Can you comment on those? Also, your degree of optimism that these two areas may significantly help.
Carson Jeffres: There’s two ways that those, what we think of as historic floodplains, which are not rice fields, can benefit the salmon. One of them is that, unlike birds, fish can’t get to the dry side of the levee, but we can take the food that grows on the dry side of the levee and the rice fields and pump it into the river for the fish that are out migrating to the ocean. The other way that rice fields are used for salmon during their out migration, is that in the flood bypasses. In particular, is that when we have flood events, many of those habitats are rice fields now, and fish can use them during their out migration. If we manage those habitats well, we can benefit salmon during their out migration on those habitats, and the food that we grow that they consume, and they get big, and then they head out to the ocean.
Jim Morris: In a larger picture, reactivating the floodplains of the Sacramento Valley, do you see multiple benefits from that, not only just for salmon?
Carson Jeffres: Many species rely on these habitats, from waterbirds, the waterfowl, there’s the waiting birds, there’s fish, there’s groundwater recharge. There’s lots of benefits from having floodplains activated in the Central Valley. For human uses, for wildlife, it’s really a win-win to see those habitats inundated.
Jim Morris: Fish food, and rice fields, how nutrient rich is that, and how optimistic are you that can make a difference?
Carson Jeffres: Fish food is really interesting in that what happens is as the rice double breaks down, when it’s flooded, is it’s basically carbon that’s being released in the water. Carbon is the currency of energy in the floodplain. When carbon is released, microbes eat it, and zooplankton can eat it, and that’s creating food for the salmon. It’s really that ability to create that carbon out and make it usable for the animals in the system. That’s what happens when you flood during the non-growing season.
Jim Morris: How important is it to consider the long term in this process? I imagine the salmon population probably won’t rebound immediately, but steps need to be taken to help this important part of our environment.
Carson Jeffres: This is a problem that’s been constructed over the last 150 years, since the Gold Rush. We shouldn’t expect that we’re going to fix it in one, or two, or five years. This is a long term idea that we need to change. The decisions that we’re making now are something that will affect the future. Understanding that we have climate changing, being able to be plastic with our decision making, and our management, is really important.
Jim Morris: Rice fields have helped a lot with the Pacific Flyway and are essentially surrogate wetlands in California. Do you feel that they might be able to play a similar role down the road for salmon?
Carson Jeffres: I think that rice fields have the same opportunities for the salmon as they did for the waterfowll. It’s a little bit different. It takes different opportunities, because fish can’t fly. You have to make it available for them, as opposed to having it just available for them to fly to. There’s those same possibilities that we have. I think that we’ve really turned a big corner in doing that. We’re starting to see those benefits being realized on the landscape now.
Jim Morris: Andrew Rypel is a professor and the Peter Moyle and California Trout chair in cold water fish ecology at UC Davis. Andrew, this is year three of field work of the pilot salmon project between UC Davis and the Rice Commission. At first glance, it may sound like a wild concept, but good things are happening. Can you provide an overview on the project?
Andrew Rypel: What we’re trying to do this year is to really scale out some of the lessons we’ve learned from previous years, such that we’re working on production scale rice fields, working with growers, using the infrastructure that they already have in place, and trying to do things to help fish, to help salmon, using that infrastructure.
Jim Morris: Let’s talk about that infrastructure. How suitable is a rice field to raise salmon?
Andrew Rypel: Well, we think it’s very productive habitat. When you look at the river habitat that salmon have been using in recent years, it’s functionally equivalent of a food desert. What this is really about is activating the floodplain, activating the food factory that already grows food for people, but now might grow food for fish, and grow salmon to be big and healthy.
Jim Morris: To have this work, you really do need quantifiable data, and of course, good results. How are those achieved?
Andrew Rypel: Using sound science. What we’re really trying to do here is get down in the weeds, get down in detail with the kinds of questions that managers and agencies are really interested in here. Trying to understand how well salmon move through the infrastructure, through the modified rice ports that we have, how well they survive in the fields, how well they egress out to the river, out to the bypass, out to the ocean, these sorts of really nitty gritty science questions that are hard to do, but we need to really advance the practice.
Jim Morris: What level of optimism do you have that this will ultimately work and help the salmon population?
Andrew Rypel: I’m extremely optimistic about it. Everything we’ve collected so far, all the data we’ve collected, points to the fact that these fields are going to be helpful for not just salmon, but lots of native fishes, but the key is to really do the hard work, do the science, to work with the agencies that manage these fisheries, and these stocks, to address their questions, to do things in a partnership-oriented method, and to move the practice forward.
Jim Morris: When you talk about native fish, I have seen some of your writings on that. That’s an area of passion for you. It sounds exciting that maybe salmon are just the first part and there could be other species that could be helped by rice fields. Is that one of your hopes?
Andrew Rypel: Absolutely. Many of the native fishes in the Central Valley are adapted evolutionarily for floodplains. Though we only have 5 percent of the natural floodplains left, we have 500,000 acres of these rice fields. We think they can be used smarter to help lots of native fishes, including salmon, but including a lot of other are kinds of native species, things like Sacramento black fish, and Sacramento perch, and maybe even smelt, who knows, but a lot of these species evolved to exploit the food rich areas of these floodplain areas, which rice fields can still provide.
Jim Morris: Oftentimes, when you have fish and farming, particularly in California, can be rather adversarial. What’s different about this arrangement as far as you see?
Andrew Rypel: Fish and farms have been pitted against each other for a really long time in California. But to me, that’s becoming somewhat of an old trope, and something that we need to get past. This is a great example of an interesting project where fish conservationists, growers, can work in collaboration to really help the resource, while still helping make food for people. That’s the kind of thinking that we need in California. That’s the kind of thinking we need in the world. This is just one example of how a project like that can come together.
Jim Morris: Paul Buttner is environmental affairs manager with the California Rice Commission. Paul, it hasn’t been easy at all times, but after three years of field work, what are your thoughts about the potential viability of this project?
Paul Buttner: Well, Jim, I’m very encouraged about the possibilities for this project. As you know, what we’re really trying to accomplish is to do for fish, what we’ve done for birds, for many, many years, that is develop habitats that’s ideal for them. Of course, there’s a lot more challenges with the fish side than the bird side. Of course, the birds fly over the habitat. They see it, they come down, they use it. With fish, it’s all about the plumbing. It’s how do we get the fish there? How do we get them off of the fields? These are the types of questions that we’re really trying to answer.
Jim Morris: What were some of the new areas that you were working in this year?
Paul Buttner: Well, first of all, this is the first time we’ve ever done the project on full size rice fields, 125 acres or so, with five or six checks. One of the things we needed to make sure is that we could allow the fish to move freely through all of those checks, and out the field when they want to. It’s called volitional passage. We put in specialized boards with holes and notches, allowing the fish to move through the system entirely.
Jim Morris: Carrying this out takes a lot of coordination, creativity, and partnerships. Let’s talk about the latter. How vital are partnerships to make this effort a success?
Paul Buttner: Yeah, this is a very significant project. We’re in phase two. Both phases are pretty expensive. They cost about $1.2 million apiece. Tremendous amount of science being done by UC Davis, and our other technical partners. It’s a really significant endeavor and it would not be possible without funding that comes first and foremost from USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Services, which has provided over half of the funding for this project. Of course, all of the funding they provide has to be matched with private sector contributions, both financial and in kind, and Syngenta and State Water Contractors have really stepped up with major contributions, and then we have a long list of other sustaining contributors as well.
Jim Morris: We’ve come to the final day of the third year of field work for the salmon project. Alex Wampler of UC Davis, you’ve been here through the start. What are your thoughts as the fish are going to head from the rice fields out to the ocean?
Alex Wampler: I’m very excited. I can’t wait to track their migration to the ocean. I suspect the fish will make it out in about 14 days. We have a very dense receiver array, so we should be able to track each step they take. It’s going to be very exciting.
Jim Morris: Is it at all emotional? You’re kind of in a different area. You’re working with living things. We sure hope that the salmon will ultimately be helped by all of this.
Alex Wampler: Oh, yes. It’s very emotional. I care about these fish deeply. I’ve hand raised them since they were eggs, in November. I suspect that they will do very well out at sea. It feels great to know that our efforts, and our research, are going immediately to species survival and helping these endemic and endangered species have a great chance while working within human boundaries.
Jim Morris: Hopefully, those same rice fields that provide major benefits for wildlife, especially during drought years, will also play a valuable role in restoring salmon, an icon of the California environment.
Jim Morris: That will wrap up this episode. Thank you to Andrew Rypel, Carson Jeffres, Paul Buttner, and Alex Wampler for their comments about this promising project. You can find out more at podcast.calrice.org. Please subscribe and leave us a review. Thanks for listening.