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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Rice Farmers Create Bird Habitat

Air Date: Week of

Cy Musiker reports from California's Sacramento Valley on an experimental project in which rice farmers are flooding their fields in the winter to provide habitat for birds migrating along the Pacific Flyway. Much of the wintering grounds along the flyway has been lost in recent years to development.


CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood.

Each spring the great American flyways are quieter than the year before; the cacophony of migratory birds muted by the steady decline of their numbers. Development is a major culprit, and stopping development in crucial areas is often seen as the only solution. But another approach is being tried in California. Rice farmers, long considered environmental villains by some, are learning to share their croplands with migrating ducks and geese. And in the process, they're also learning to share one of the state's most precious resources: water. Cy Musiker has our story.

(Sound of noisy room, traffic outside)

MUSIKER: From his office in San Francisco's North Beach, author Marc Reisner has been a relentless crusader for water policy reform in the West. Among his chief targets have been California rice farmers. It's crazy, he used to write, to grow a monsoon crop such as rice in a state where it doesn't rain six months out of the year. So Reisner was surprised not long ago when a group of rice farmers invited him for a visit.

REISNER: I went on the theory that, you know, you should always get to know your enemies, in order to dislike them even more.

MUSIKER: But Reisner went during the winter, and what he saw led him to change his mind -- huge flocks of ducks and geese, hawks and herons, who make winter homes in the rice fields and nearby refuges during California's rainy season.

REISNER: So I decided that it was really important to try to keep the rice industry in business, and one way to do that was to let them wear the white hat, and then move them in the direction of environmental restoration and sustainability.

MUSIKER: Reisner, who's now working for the Nature Conservancy, knew that the Sacramento Valley, the northern half of California's great Central Valley, is a major section of the Pacific Flyway, a migratory path stretching from the Arctic to Mexico. But in the last two decades, duck and geese populations throughout North America have plunged as winter habitat has disappeared. What if, the rice farmers suggested to Marc Reisner, what if the farms could grow rice in the summer and become waterfowl refuges in the winter?

(Sound of ducks flocking, quacking)

MUSIKER: We've just spooked about a thousand ducks from a flooded rice field near Maxwell, California. The soils throughout the area are heavy clay, not well suited to other crops, but easy to keep flooded for rice or birds. It's a drizzly morning in late winter, and many of the waterfowl have already started their migration north. Earlier in the day we passed a couple of thousand snow geese on a neighboring farm.

PAYNE: These fields have high diversity, there's a lot of pintails, mallards, teal, gadwalls, widgeon, almost all the puddle ducks that you can find on the Pacific Flyway, you'll find right here on the rice fields in the Sacramento Valley.

MUSIKER: That's Jack Payne. He's a wildlife biologist with the conservation group D.U., Ducks Unlimited, and one of the men in charge of the Ricelands Habitat venture. That's the birds and rice experiment the farmers have organized with D.U. , the Nature Conservancy, the National Audubon Society, and other groups. Migratory waterfowl have always been attracted to the abundant waste rice in the fields after the fall harvest. But Jack Payne guides us to the edge of the field and plunges his hand into six inches of water and mud to show us something else.

PAYNE: You see a lot of fly larvae, small maggot-like critters that are very important. Now here is a small annelid worm, that a duck would find as an important morsel.

MUSIKER: When the fields are flooded, Payne says, they produce a whole new food chain for migratory birds. So the ducks and geese are happy with the experiment, but you might be wondering why the farmers should be taking such a keen interest in the well-being of birds. The big motivator is a new state pollution law that requires growers to phase out the traditional practice of burning the rice stubble, or straw, after the fall harvest. Rice straw is incredibly tough, and doesn't rot if it's just plowed into the soil. But over the years, a few growers had noticed that the straw would rot if they used an experimental device called a cage roller to smush down the straw, then invited the ducks and geese into the fields to Cuisinart the stubble with their feet. Doug McGeoghan has 220 acres in the habitat experiment. It's his rice field we've been visiting.

McGEOGHAN: It's hard to really believe. If you'd seen how much by-product straw there was behind the combine in October, and you looked at the field floor right now, it's, for all practical purposes, it's gone.

MUSIKER: McGeoghan is a committed birder and duck hunter who's pioneered the cage roller technique over the past few years. He notes that the tens of thousands of ducks and geese seem also to be making his fields more productive.

McGEOGHAN: Normally we'd put on about 160 pounds of nitrogen through the course of the growing season. We put on about 130 on this field and still produced a crop that was 15% higher than the state average, so everything sort of seems to be working.

MUSIKER: McGeoghan and wildlife biologist Jack Payne have found other rice farmers just as enthusiastic to join the project. They've signed up twice the acreage they'd expected to and other growers are having similar success. If the farmers are showing a rare willingness to experiment, environmentalists are making an equally dramatic change in embracing agriculture as an ally. Jack Payne's job is to find privately held land that can be enhanced for waterfowl. He says he'll gladly take rice farms over natural habitat if the alternative is suburban development.

PAYNE: The demographers tell us that we currently have 33 million people in California. By the year 2015, we're going to have over 50 million. The L.A. Basin's full, San Francisco's full. Where are these people going to go? Well, the most obvious place is the Central Valley. Where are these birds going to go when these people start to move into the valley? That's my main concern.

MUSIKER: The project is driven by still other concerns. Six years of drought in California have focused the state's attention on how little water there really is to go around.

WHEELER: There is no surplus water in California today.

MUSIKER: Doug Wheeler is California's Secretary of Resources. He administers the state's enormous water distribution system, most of which is devoted to taking rain and snow from the northern Sierras and shipping it south for farm and urban use. Even with the end of the drought, Wheeler notes, every farmer, fish, bird, and city dweller will have to accept a smaller piece of the water pie.

WHEELER: What we're trying to do here is to make better use, in fact triple or quadruple use of whatever water is available to farmers. And so we're not using it just for rice, we're using it for waterfowl habitat, we're using it to solve an air quality problem. And we're using these fields to store water, such that it can be reused for downstream consumpters.

MUSIKER: Despite all these endorsements, some very big questions remain about the project. Where's all the water going to come from to flood what could be 200,000 acres of ricelands a year? Fall water diversions could also endanger the winter Chinook salmon runs in the Sacramento River. Their numbers have dropped to a thousand fish, all told, and the Chinook have been declared an endangered species. On the other hand, spring water releases could help the spring-run Chinook.

(Sound of flock rising from ground)

MUSIKER: Still, the Ricelands Habitat venture is gathering a lot of momentum. And it points the way to California's water future. It used to be that when a city or group of farmers wanted more water, they just convinced a government agency to build another dam. But those days are over in the West, and farmers, city dwellers and wildlife advocates are going to have to find ways to better share the water they have. For Living on Earth, I'm Cy Musiker in Maxwell, California.



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