At the Sutter National Wildlife Refuge near Yuba City, wetlands that should be teeming with mallards, canvasbacks, geese and pelicans are instead parched and barren.
The refuge, established in 1945, is normally able to flood its 21 wetland tracts by early October. They provide food and shelter for millions of birds that migrate across the globe, using California's Central Valley as a vital stop along the Pacific Flyway.
In addition to their ecological importance, the Sacramento Valley's public wildlife refuges attract more than 200,000 visitors per year, including hunters, anglers and bird lovers. They are one of the only options for outdoor lovers who can't afford a pricey duck club membership or an exotic bird-watching safari.
This year, 80 percent of the Sutter refuge remains dry. That means about 2,000 acres of potential habitat is nearly empty of bird life. Ponds normally busy with squawking ducks and geese are dried to a crisp in the October sun.
"The water, come lately, hasn't been real reliable," said Dan Frisk, manager of the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge Complex, which includes Sutter. "We now have this problem reoccurring it looks like annually."
For a century, Central Valley refuge areas such as Sutter have been last in line for water, behind thirsty farms and cities. A 1992 federal law written to correct that imbalance is now widely understood to have missed the mark.
The Central Valley Project Improvement Act was written to address environmental damage caused by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation's massive waterworks in California, including Shasta Dam on the Sacramento River, Folsom Dam on the American River and diversions from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.
In addition to containing protections for endangered fish such as salmon and smelt, the act required the Bureau of Reclamation, by 2002, to supply more than 133,000 acre-feet of water annually to 19 Central Valley wildlife refuges, including Sutter. That's enough to meet the water needs of a city the size of Sacramento.
It also requires the bureau to fix various plumbing problems that hinder water deliveries to refuges including Sutter.
But Reclamation has not met those requirements. Even 10 years after the deadline, the goal remains elusive.
"We haven't been very successful, other than in fiscal year 2011, in meeting our obligations here," said Richard Woodley, regional resources manager at the Bureau of Reclamation in Sacramento. "When the law was passed, they kind of figured we would identify permanent water we would acquire as water rights. That pretty much hasn't happened, so we buy water on the open market."
The situation is like buying an apple at the grocery store vs. owning an apple orchard. The apple solves a short-term hunger problem; the orchard provides food forever.
Reclamation has been buying apples, not orchards.
"My speculation is it has not risen to a level of political priority," said Dan Taylor, director of public policy at Audubon California. "There are many competing interests for water. This, as a priority, has not been treated with the seriousness that it deserves."
A place to land
For bird enthusiasts, California's Central Valley preserves are wondrous places, where waterfowl circle by the thousands in cloudlike formations as they move between wetlands.
But less water means fewer birds and less opportunity for bird-watchers and hunters, said Mark Hennelly, vice president of public policy at the California Waterfowl Association.
For many hunters, the refuges are the only alternative to expensive private duck clubs, where even renting a membership for one season can cost $6,000 or more. At the wildlife refuges, hunters pay only a $1 fee each time they enter a drawing for a hunting opportunity.
This year, the waterfowl-hunt season at Sutter National Wildlife Refuge is likely to start in mid-November one month late because there simply isn't enough water. This means both birds and hunters will be crowding together at the remaining refuge areas.
"The Sutter basin as a whole does not have a lot of wetland habitat," Hennelly said. "So making sure that refuge is flooded up in a timely manner will benefit the migrating birds."
As water has grown more expensive since 1992 amid increasing demand, Reclamation has never had enough money to buy permanent water rights for the refuges, Woodley said. Instead, it shops around each year for temporary supplies that others might not need.
The availability and cost of that water varies greatly, depending on whether it is a wet or dry year. And as the human population grows and demand for water increases, the option to purchase permanent water rights moves further out of reach.
"Delay has meant that the price has gone up," Taylor said. "Our ability to secure water rights is becoming more and more expensive and the challenge grows more acute every year."
Buying water on the spot market in a wet year may cost $60 to $75 per acre-foot. In dry years, it can range as high as $500. An acre-foot is enough to flood an acre of land 1 foot deep, or about enough to meet the needs of two average California households for a year.
Competition boosts price
Since 1992, Woodley said, Reclamation has spent $159 million buying water in its effort to satisfy the Central Valley Project Improvement Act. All of that money has gone for temporary supplies, not permanent water rights. It spent $13.8 million on water in 2011 alone.
Buying permanent water rights costs exponentially more. Woodley estimated the cost at $5,000 per acre-foot to acquire water rights. In a 2010 deal, the cities of Woodland and Davis signed a contract to pay $80 million for 10,000 acre-feet of Sacramento River water rights. That's $8,000 per acre-foot.
"It takes up all the resources we have just to acquire water," Woodley said. "In drier years, other people can pay a whole lot more than we can. We just can't compete in that market."
By buying apples instead of orchards, it means wildlife refuges never know how much water they will have in any given year.
"That's just a terrible way to manage that program, because refuge managers need to know early on in the year how much water they're getting so they can plan to put water on and take water off for weed control and plant growth," said Bob Schaeffer, coordinator of the Central Valley Joint Venture, a coalition of groups working to resolve the problem. "A lot of times they don't know until it's really too late to effectively manage their properties."
Despite the shortcomings, Taylor and Schaeffer are quick to acknowledge that Reclamation has made huge strides in complying with the law. There is no doubt that the Valley's refuges have far more water than they did in 1992, and that bird populations have improved as a result. This applies not just to ducks and geese, but to hundreds of shorebird, songbird and raptor species that also rely on the refuges.
About 95 percent of the Valley's historic wetlands were eliminated a century ago by urbanization, farming and levee construction. Wildlife refuges make up the majority of what's left. Farms especially rice fields help meet some of the wetland need today, but don't provide the habitat diversity and protection from disturbance found in the refuges.
"Locking in the water supply for those (refuge) areas is just critical to sustain the birds of the flyway," said Schaeffer.
The only time Reclamation came close to meeting its full obligation for refuge water was in 2011. It delivered about 100,000 acre-feet, thanks to a wet winter and enough water available for purchase that was not needed elsewhere. This year, after a dry winter, Reclamation expects to deliver only about half that.
Even if Reclamation managed to buy all the water it's supposed to, it couldn't deliver it all because of plumbing problems that remain at four refuges: Sutter and Gray Lodge in the Sacramento Valley, and Pixley and Kern in the San Joaquin Valley.
Since 1992, Woodley said, Reclamation has spent $148 million fixing plumbing problems at 15 of the refuge areas. But the final four are still waiting for fixes. Each is unique and complicated in its own way.
At the Sutter refuge, for instance, an electrical pumping station is needed to deliver water to the refuge from a canal that also serves nearby rice farmers. Absent such a pump, the refuge relies on gravity to pull water from the canal. But gravity doesn't work unless the water level is sufficiently high, which causes rice farmers to complain that they can't drain their fields in time for harvest.
Without gravity flow this fall, the refuge resorted to running two portable diesel-powered pumps to draw water from the canal. They've been running noisily, around the clock, since Oct. 1.
Reclamation paid to rent the pumps, but the refuge is paying for the diesel fuel, at an estimated cost of $9,000 for the month.
An electrical pumping station would allow the refuge to draw all the water it needs. But that solution is years away: It will probably cost $3 million, Woodley said, and hinges on appropriations by Congress.
Waterfowl advocates are pressing Congress to find a solution to the funding problem that has made Reclamation a decade late in getting water to the refuges. Taylor, of Audubon, said they are also awaiting the $11 billion state water bond, which includes $100 million for refuge water purchases. The bond has been delayed twice and is now slated for the November 2014 ballot.
"For the Central Valley to continue to exist as a world spectacle for migratory birds, water supply is the biggest challenge that we face," Taylor said.