In California, rice farms become a home for wildlife

In California’s Sacramento Valley, farmers and conservationists are working together to create habitat for wildlife, trying to mimic wetlands that were once plentiful in the state but have shrunk to one-tenth of their historic size. The focus of their work is the rice industry, which ranks second in production after the Mississippi Delta. The effort is paying off.  One farmer pointed out “egrets and herons, Sandhill Cranes, curlews, ibis, and countless ducks and geese filling whole sections of rice fields,” reports Lisa Morehouse in her latest story for FERN, in collaboration with KQED’s California Report.

Government and nonprofit groups pay farmers to manage the level of water on their fields, adding or releasing water as needed. “That gives migrating birds a few more weeks of feeding time by turning the Sacramento Valley into a checkerboard of simulated wetlands, and mudflats,” Morehouse says. A recent study of just one of these programs, The Nature Conservancy’s BirdReturns, showed birds use these managed rice fields at rates up to three times higher than ever recorded.

The new approach differs dramatically from a practice decades ago, when fields were burned after harvest. Now they are flooded and the rice straw is allowed to decompose, creating habitat that spawns insect life and in turn attracts birds. The region sits right on the Pacific Flyway for migrating birds.

The flooded rice fields might also be beneficial for migrating salmon, whose numbers have dwindled in recent years. One team at UC Davis found that by letting salmon feed in flooded rice fields, they grew seven times faster than fish in the nearby river channel. But getting fish access to rice fields and back to the rivers could be difficult. Instead, the Davis scientists would like to see hundreds of thousands of acres drained strategically back into rivers, where endangered fish populations feed.

The story is also online at FERN in both print and audio.