As we endure the third year of a severe drought, California is confronting serious threats to many animal species and critical habitats. And like the proverbial canaries in the coal mine, California’s birds provide us with a clear warning about the need to plan wisely for drought’s impact on people, agriculture, wildlife and recreation.
Thousands of birds have died in the past few weeks as the result of a suspected avian botulism epidemic sweeping through a wildlife refuge in Northern California. A hundred birds a day are dying at the Tule Lake National Wildlife Refuge on the Oregon border.
Deadly bird diseases like avian botulism and avian cholera, which do not directly threaten human health, are exacerbated during droughts. Scarce wetland habitat forces migratory water birds like ducks and shorebirds to crowd around the few existing water sources. The resulting overcrowding creates conditions in which these diseases spread.
In the last two years, drought in the Klamath basin caused an estimated loss of 10,000 to 20,000 ducks and geese from avian cholera. This month, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife raised the alarm, asking the public to inform state officials if they see dead or dying water birds in their communities.
As the drought intensifies, these diseases could spread. In addition, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service says this year’s migratory duck population is larger than last year’s. As millions of water birds migrate through California between now and December, with millions staying throughout the winter, this “bird boom” coupled with severe drought could create a perfect storm of devastation.
Political debates during droughts in California tend to center on “farmers vs. fish,” leaving out the important role of migratory birds in our economy and environment.
The wetlands of Central California form part of a critical bird migration route known as the Pacific Flyway, which stretches from Alaska to Chile. Millions of migratory water birds – including ducks, geese, terns, shorebirds and many others – depend on California’s wetlands for water, food and habitat during their long migration and throughout winter.
Migratory water birds play a vital role in California’s environment, but they are also a critical part of our economy. Tourists, bird watchers and hunters add millions of dollars to our state every year. A sample of two Central Valley wetlands alone in 2011 generated nearly $8 million that was spent in local communities.
Our wetlands provide firsthand educational opportunities for youths and adults, a place for hunters to pursue their passion, and protecting wetland habitat is essential to maintaining the health of California’s environment. Wetlands play a crucial role in filtering water, trapping sediments and preventing erosion of stream and riverbanks, removing heavy metals from urban areas and helping protect properties from flooding. They also reduce flood damage during large storms, which will become more frequent and intense with climate change.
Congress passed laws to protect these vital wetlands more than 20 years ago, but the commitment has not been met.
Even before the drought, California had lost roughly 90 percent of its native wetlands. The Central Valley Project Improvement Act mandated that key wetland locations be protected and receive vital water allocations, but those allocations have been cut in recent years.
It is time for a change. California needs balanced policy solutions that protect fish, birds, families and farmers alike. Agricultural stakeholders, water managers, elected officials and citizens must work together to protect wetlands and migratory bird habitat for future generations. A coalition of conservation organizations including Audubon California, The Nature Conservancy, Point Blue Conservation Science, Ducks Unlimited and Defenders of Wildlife has come together to highlight the plight of these migratory water birds.
California’s water bond is a step in the right direction. It includes funding to meet the state’s obligations under the Central Valley Project Improvement Act, which will help ensure water for refuges. It also includes funding to help support habitat restoration and enhancement for migratory birds.
But we also need to ensure that the Bay Delta Conservation Plan includes consideration of full water delivery to refuges. Additionally, federal legislation, including Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s drought bill, should uphold environmental protections like the Endangered Species Act, and should not undermine the Central Valley Project Improvement Act.
As the debate over the state’s water resources intensifies due to drought and climate change, we must remember the important relationship between California and migratory water birds, which symbolize California’s rich natural history. It is up to us to protect these creatures as an important part of the wildlife legacy we leave to our children.