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About 90 Percent of Natural Wetlands Lost

American Avocet in flightBy Kayla Webster, kwebster@tcnpress.com
Posted: July 17, 2016. Courtesy of Appealdemocrat.com

California has lost approximately 90 percent of its natural wetlands areas, it's reported.

Birds are surviving largely because of flooded rice fields, and though rice fields are a viable habitat substitution, the California Waterfowl Association has been concerned the birds were being forced to migrate prematurely because the rice fields weren't remaining flooded during their normal migration period.

Now rice farmers in the Sacramento Valley can receive federal compensation to continue providing waterfowl habitat for longer periods of time.

"We were concerned that these birds didn't have adequate time to rest before they continued their migration pattern," said Jake Messerli, vice president of the California Waterfowl Association. "And there are obvious benefits to farmers with this program."

The U.S. Department of Agriculture's Natural Resources Conservation Service partnered with wildlife agencies like the waterfowl association to provide a monetary incentive for rice farmers to keep their fields flooded through February.

The program would simply build on a current practice used by rice farmers to prepare their fields for the next growing season — flooding. Rather than the field-burning practices of old, most rice farmers now flood their fields to dispose of the rice stalks left from the harvesting season. Instead of headache-inducing smoke, flooding decomposes the rice stalks naturally, returning nutrients to the soil.

"There's still a burning program, but only about 25 percent of farmers use that method because it's difficult," said Steve Scheer, the Yuba County agriculture commissioner said. "It all depends on wind conditions and 'no-burn days,' that's why most farmers use the flood method."

According to Jim Spear, the NRCS area manager for the Red Bluff office, farmers who qualify for this program can receive an average of $50 per acre for implementing the program.

"This was intended to replace what was lost with agriculture development," Spear said. "The greater the habitat value, the greater the payment; the more a farmer is willing to adopt these practices, the higher payment they can achieve."

Farmers involved in this program would receive a higher payout for using their own water to keep their rice fields at a deeper water level — the program would essentially compensate them for paying to use more water. However, farmers who don't want to use more water can simply opt to refrain from draining their fields until February. This method typically results in a lower payout, but it could increase depending on weather conditions.

"It depends on the rain and the farmer's willingness to manage the system," Spear said. "Farmers can choose to keep their water boxes closed for longer periods of time."

In addition to higher water levels, the program asks farmers to consider building nesting islands with grasses and other natural debris to encourage the birds to raise their young on the fields.

"Rice provides 60 percent of food for birds; the program is designed to provide habitat for shore birds, but we've seen an increase in ducks," Messerli said.