California’s rice farmers pride themselves on environmental stewardship, saying their flooded fields provide habitat for millions of ducks and geese in an era when traditional marshlands have largely disappeared.
Now a giant Yolo County farm controlled by the family of Sacramento land baron Angelo K. Tsakopoulos will test whether it can grow rice with water measured in drops.
Conaway Ranch, a 17,000-acre farm in which the Tsakopoulos family acquired controlling interest in 2010, said Monday it will work with water-use experts from Israel to experiment with drip irrigation on a small portion of its rice fields. The project, aimed at reducing water usage, will start this spring on a 50- to 100-acre test plot.
“We believe this initiative represents the first use of drip irrigation in the U.S. for a rice crop,” said Kyriakos Tsakopoulos, the son of Angelo K. Tsakopoulos and president of ranch owner Conaway Preservation Group. “This effort could serve as a model for other farms and potentially save hundreds of thousands of acre-feet of water in California if widely adopted.”
Rice is traditionally grown by flooding farm fields, and Sacramento Valley rice farmers have been hit hard by the drought. Experts estimate the 2015 rice crop was 30 percent smaller than usual because of water shortages.
The water savings from growing rice with drip irrigation could be substantial.
“If you move away from flood irrigation to subsurface drip irrigation, one can save up to 45 to 50 percent of the water, having the same crop,” said project consultant Eilon Adar, a hydrologist at Israel’s Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. He said using less water also reduces the amount of pesticides and fertilizers that go into the soils.
Yet the possibility of Central Valley rice farmers switching to drip irrigation in droves is stirring concern among some farmers and environmentalists because of the importance rice fields play as surrogate habitat to replace the vast north-state wetlands that people have plowed or paved over.
“One of the benefits of those shallow flooded fields is wildlife habitat,” said Jim Morris, spokesman for the California Rice Commission. “Nearly 230 wildlife species depend on those fields for food and a resting place. That includes nearly 60 percent of the food consumed by the millions of ducks and geese that travel along the Pacific Flyway each fall and winter.”
Rice fields are also vital in spring, when the Tsakopoulos experiment will begin. This flooding provides habitat for black-necked stilts, ibises, egrets and other birds, as well as habitat for the endangered giant garter snake, said Meghan Hertel, an official with Audubon California.
“We’ve lost 90 to 95 percent of our wetland habitat, our riparian habitat and our floodplain habitat in the Central Valley ... and rice is one of those crops that serves as surrogate habitat in multiple seasons,” she said. “You’ll find wildlife that use it year-round.”
Some in the environmental community said the Conaway Ranch experiment makes sense, even if it means there’s sometimes less water for birds.
Jonathan Rosenfield, a conservation biologist with the nonprofit Bay Institute in San Francisco, said the benefits to wildlife from flooded rice fields are unmistakable. But in critically dry years, with several fish species facing possible extinction, he said it might make sense to use drip irrigation and keep more cold water in the Sacramento River.
Rosenfield said water diversions to rice farms contributed to struggles facing the winter-run Chinook salmon, an endangered species of fish that spawns in the heat of the summer in a short stretch of river below Shasta Dam.
Last summer marked the second year in a row in which the Sacramento River got too hot, killing off almost an entire generation of juvenile fish.
“If drip irrigation in this pilot project is going to reduce demand on water and be able to keep rice farmers going and reduce impacts to critically endangered fish populations, then that sounds like a good thing,” Rosenfield said.
Project proponents said they won’t turn their backs on the need to maintain wildlife habitat.
“Any new successful technologies developed on Conaway Ranch are intended to be used in ways that balance water efficiency with wildlife conservation and responsible land stewardship,” Kyriakos Tsakopoulos said in an email to The Sacramento Bee.
Hertel of California Audubon said that Conaway Ranch has been a good neighbor to wildlife. For instance, she said there’s a conservation easement on the property to protect the tricolored blackbird, which is under consideration for listing as an endangered species.
Also participating in the project are Lundberg Family Farms, a prominent Butte County rice grower; and Netafim, an Israeli company that makes drip-irrigation systems. Israel is considered a leader in water conservation, and the partnership was announced at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s annual policy conference in Washington, a meeting that otherwise is being dominated by speeches by Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump and other presidential candidates.
In part because of Angelo K. Tsakopoulos’ reputation as an aggressive developer, his family’s purchase of Conaway Ranch was controversial from the beginning. Yolo County officials initially feared the family would take huge swaths of land out of agricultural production. Eventually, the deal went through under a carefully negotiated settlement with the county.
Tsakopoulos, who developed much of suburban Sacramento, agreed to support agricultural preservation and the county’s flood-control efforts (the ranch sits partly in the Yolo Bypass, the 59,000-acre tract that serves as a kind of relief valve for the Sacramento River). The county said it wouldn’t stand in the way of limited water and land sales.
Around the time it acquired control of Conaway Ranch, the family made a deal to sell 10,000 acre-feet of Sacramento River water annually, starting this year, to the cities of Davis and Woodland.