Wildlife Investigation

Rice farms receive federal help to provide waterbird habitat

A black-necked stilt rests on the levee of a rice field in Sutter County.
A black-necked stilt rests on the levee of a rice field in Sutter County. California Rice Commission

With habitat for California waterbirds drying up, conservation groups and rice farmers are collaborating to flood fields and enhance waterbird habitat on roughly 550,000 acres of California’s rice fields.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service is contributing $7 million, matched by partner agencies, for helping share farmers’ costs of implementing new practices that align rice growing with waterbird needs.

“The idea behind the program is to provide the incentive for people to adopt new things and then do it on their own even without the payment,” program manager Alan Forkey said.

Rice farmers will receive from $5 to over $100 per acre for their participation, depending on factors such as field location and soil type.

“We saw the response of the birds, and the rice industry has decided to invest significantly,” says Paul Buttner, environmental affairs manager with the California Rice Commission, which represents about 2,500 rice farmers and handlers in the state. The vast majority of California rice is grown in the Central Valley, generating more than $5 billion for the state’s economy.

Many rice farmers already flood their fields during the winter to decompose rice straw left over from harvest in September. Historically, leftover rice straw was burned, but California legislation phased out the practice in the 1990s to reduce air pollution. Alternative approaches to remove rice straw currently include tillage or tractor use.

“We used to fill the air with smoke; now, we fill it with waterbirds,” Buttner said.

Typically, those fields are drained in January to prepare for the next growing season, but the program incentivizes variable drawdown, which involves draining fields gradually in January rather than all at once and extending flooding by about four weeks.

Up to three times the number of waterbirds, which make their homes in or near water, are observed on rice fields with variable drawdown. The program also encourages other practices throughout the year, such as building nesting islands for birds in the middle of rice fields.

Each year, millions of migratory waterbirds depend on California’s wetlands to rest and refuel on their long journey. These include ducks, shorebirds, herons, egrets, cranes, terns, rails and ibises, many of which migrate along the Pacific flyway spanning from Alaska to South America during the winter.

Since the 1800s, more than 90 percent of California’s wetlands have been lost due to human activity. Drought conditions over the past few years have further diminished available habitat, causing waterbird populations to decline significantly.

One positive development has been a recent increase in duck numbers. Over the past three years, duck species have declined in surveys conducted by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. However, a recent survey released in June reported a 32 percent rise in the number of ducks observed, from 315,577 to 417,791.

This year’s spring rains gave a boost to waterbird habitat, which is expected to help with breeding and fall flight. But more predictable than rainfall, habitat enhancement on rice fields benefits not just 50 species of waterbirds, but 230 species believed to rely on rice fields, including reptiles and mammals.

Farmers wishing to receive technical and financial assistance for enhancing waterbird habitat on their fields can visit their local Natural Resources Conservation Service office before the July 29 application deadline.