Here’s how rice farmers prevent flooding and help wildlife

Migrating birds forage on the water in a rice field in Meridian, part of the Pacific Flyway, in 2014.
Migrating birds forage on the water in a rice field in Meridian, part of the Pacific Flyway, in 2014. Sacramento Bee file

Last winter’s heavy rains were a welcome relief for Central Valley farmers after years of drought. But the high water that came with them also made it clear that we must upgrade the flood control system designed to protect people, farms and cities from catastrophic flooding.


Watching hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria from afar, Californians may not realize that our own Central Valley is at high risk of this type of flooding, especially as extreme weather events are becoming more common.

Fortunately, the Central Valley Flood Protection Board recently updated its plan to improve protection for farmers and city dwellers alike. It will also help revive flagging salmon runs and support other struggling native species.

As farmers, we are often on the front lines of California’s water challenges. We understand the benefits of wildlife-friendly agriculture. Rice farmers, especially, have taken the lead in finding ways to use limited water supplies to sustain farms while simultaneously benefiting birds, fish and other wildlife.

Flooding rice fields after harvest during the winter creates seasonal wetlands that are essential for the survival of the millions of birds that travel the Pacific flyway annually. With only 5 percent of the Central Valley’s traditional floodplains remaining, flooded rice fields are a lifeline for these birds and also benefit struggling native fish populations such as salmon and smelt.

This multibenefit approach to flood and water management is at the core of the new Central Valley Flood Protection Plan, which calls for building projects designed to allow rivers and floodplains to function more naturally. These projects come with additional public benefits, such as improving water quality, increasing groundwater recharge and providing outdoor recreation opportunities.

One of the best ways to both prevent flood damage and improve fish and wildlife populations is to find strategic places to expand floodways. Allowing flood waters to spread out and slow down lowers crests and reduces strain on the levees that line Central Valley rivers. And when rivers can safely handle higher flows, dam managers can keep reservoir levels higher during heavy rains, potentially increasing water supplies during the summer.

In addition to increased public safety, this approach seems much more promising for fish and wildlife than the current flow strategies. Instead of pitting the needs of wildlife against those of farmers, it focuses on ways to address both.

With the right approach, changing the way we manage floods could improve the survival of native fish without harming farms. If we help fish populations rebound by improving the health of our rivers, water allocations for farms and cities may also become more predictable.

The updated Central Valley Flood Protection Plan takes this right approach. Now it’s time for policymakers to ensure sufficient funding is available to turn the plan into action.

Sean Doherty is a third-generation rice farmer in Dunnigan and can be contacted at Bryce Lundberg is vice president of agriculture at Lundberg Family Farms in Butte County and can be contacted at