Rice Fields Provide Habitat for Wildlife

Fields Alive with Life in the Summer

By Melissa Moe, Associate Editor

Rice fields provide a great source of food for consumers, but they also provide a great habitat for all kinds of wildlife, especially birds. Matthew Sligar is a third generation rice grower in Butte County. His rice fields are exploding with life this time of year.

“Right now, in the middle of summer, we have ducks that are nesting, so it’s really beautiful to see the baby ducks swimming around in the rice fields. But we have everything from frogs, snakes, raccoons, rabbits, tons of insects that don’t damage the rice. So it’s a beautiful summertime,” he said.

The wildlife that can be seen in the area is very diverse. In the wintertime, different birds come to visit his rice fields. Sligar provides a habitat for migratory birds flying south for the winter.

“After we harvest the rice, we disc and mow the rice straw that’s left in the fields, and we incorporate that into the ground. Then we flood the rice fields, and keep it that way the entire winter. That’s to help decompose the rice straw, and what that does is provide a perfect, natural habitat for those migratory birds, so you’ll see thousands of birds in the rice fields, just ducks, geese, shore birds, gulls, all kinds,” he said.

Watching these birds can be very rewarding. With declining natural habitats for these birds and other wildlife to live in, rice fields are a great place for these animals to thrive.

“It’s just amazing to see the feathers floating on the water, because there’s just so many, and they’re landing. It’s just a beautiful sight, and really rewarding actually,” he said.

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CULTIVATING COMMON GROUND: Economic Analysis of Drought on California Agriculture

Editor’s note: We thank Aubrey Bettencourt for her contribution to California Ag Today’s CULTIVATING COMMON GROUND commenting on the report, “Economic Analysis of the 2016 Drought for California Agriculture,” released this week. Lead UC Davis author Josué Medellín-Azuara’s response can be read below. 

 

By Aubrey Bettencourt, executive director, California Water Alliance (CalWA)

 

Josué Medellín-Azuara, Duncan MacEwan, Richard E. Howitt, Daniel A. Sumner and Jay R. Lund of the UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences, ERA Economics and the UC Agricultural Issues Center reported their views on the economic impact of California’s continuing drought on agriculture this week. The study, “Economic Analysis of the 2016 Drought For California Agriculture,” proved to be uncommonly riddled with errors, questionable metrics and inaccuracies; it’s a continuation of a disturbing recent trend.

CA Water Alliance logo

 

The authors claim that about 78,800 acres of land might be idled due to the drought, but a quick Google search shows a single water district that had more than 200,000 acres of fallowed land in 2016. There are more than a hundred other water districts throughout the state, and most are reporting idled acreage.

 

In another irrigation district in Yuba County, more than 100 agricultural users have been cut off entirely, leaving their nearly-mature crops and fruit and nut trees without water.   [North Yuba Water District (NYWD)]

 

This year the federal and state water projects announced they would provide agriculture with 55% of their water. Two months ago, they reduced the estimate to 5% south of the Delta, and they are struggling to even deliver that amount.

 

Across the state, water prices have increased dramatically, whether pumped from the ground or bought on the faltering water-exchange market. Water that costs less than $250 per acre foot in 2012 now costs up to $750 or more.

 

It doesn’t take a doctoral or economic degree to understand that when the price of water goes up, the cost to produce food also goes up. Farmers may be getting more money for the produce they grow, but they are watching their bottom line shrink because it costs more to grow it. Even water from their wells isn’t free; pumping takes energy, and energy costs money too.

 

Adding to rapidly increasing costs are the new minimum wage, capped work hours, and hundreds of regulatory mandates from the 80+ local, state, and federal agencies that oversee every aspect of California farming and bury farmers in paperwork and red tape. Compliance takes time away from growing food, and it costs money.

 

Take a look at rice farmers. Growing rice today is a losing proposition. After the labor, cost of rice plants, fuel, fertilizing, care, harvesting, drying and milling, growers pay substantially more to grow rice than they can charge for their crop. Many have converted rice paddies to other uses, and some sell their water or take money from federal agencies and conservation groups to create wildlife habitat in order to simply stay afloat. Some are selling off their land to developers, a lose-lose decision affecting everyone.

 

On main street, consumers are another group taking a second, alarmed look at their grocery, water and sewage bills. All are rising far faster than inflation. Whether you are talking about the price of fruit, bread and eggs or the cost of taking a shower, all have been increasing over the past five years because of the drought.

 

To really understand what’s happening, take a drive out of the city and into the countryside where your food is grown. Stop at a roadside produce stand or park your car and strike up a conversation with some ranchers and farmers in a small town cafe.

 

After you hear their stories, you may realize that almonds and pistachios are not as labor intensive as strawberries, tomatoes, cucumbers, grapes, beef, lamb or many others out of the nearly 450 crops grown in California. Some crops are thirstier than others, too. This doesn’t diminish the value of these fruits, nuts, vegetables, and proteins. The value of water is what it provides us: in this case, safe, local, and hopefully affordable food.

 

But commonsense interviews and case studies of actual operations — once the heart of any competent agricultural economic study — are virtually missing from the report’s statistical models built on university computers, research hypotheses and tables of statistics.

 

The drought has hurt California farmers, and it is hurting Californians wherever they live. Gross income may be up, but net profits are down, and the rate of decline hasn’t hit bottom yet. 


Aubrey Bettencourt is the executive director of the California Water Alliance (CalWA), a leading educational voice and authority on California water. CalWA advocates for the water needs of California families, cities, businesses, farmers and the environment.



Editor’s note: California Ag today thanks Josué Medellín-Azuara, senior researcher, UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences, and lead author of “Economic Analysis of the 2016 Drought For California Agriculture,” published this week, for his response to several claims made by Aubrey Bettencourt (above).

UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences
Josué Medellín-Azuara told California Ag Today, “I will not go over debating the comments which I very much welcome and respect, but I would like to provide some thoughts instead.”

 

1)  “Through remote sensing,” Medellín-Azuara said, “we estimated summer idle land in Westlands by the end of the irrigation season to have been 170K acres in 2011 and just above 270K acres in 2014,” based on NASA data. The difference can be explained by some drought effects and other conditions, according to Medellín-Azuara, “so idled land differences should be taken with a grain of salt. As a point of interest, most of the fallow land we estimated was on the Westside of the south San Joaquin Valley.”

 

2) In addition, Medellín-Azuara clarified, “My understanding is that there is a cost issue and a cutoff issue. We estimated about 150 TAF (Thousand Acre-Feet) of [water] shortage in the Sacramento Valley in our study. At current conditions for North Yuba Water District (NYWD) agriculture is no more than 3 TAF from my reading of the attached document. I am not saying the cutoffs are not hard for the more than a hundred users, but [I] also want to put numbers into perspective.”

 

3) “From what I’ve heard and read,” Medellín-Azuara stated, “the timing [of] more than quantity of the projected releases is unfortunate. One of the things we highly encourage in this and past reports is easing of low environmental impact water transfers among users.”

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Conservation Innovation Grant Pre-Proposals Deadline Approaches

The USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) in California announced TODAY that April 10, 2015, will be the deadline to submit project pre-proposals for Conservation Innovation Grants (CIG) this fiscal year. Up to $375,000 is available for the California statewide CIG competition.

CIG is a voluntary program to stimulate the development and adoption of innovative conservation approaches and technologies. The program leverages federal investment in methods that enhance the environment while also sustaining agricultural production. CIG enables NRCS to work with public and private entities to accelerate technology transfer and adoption of promising approaches to address pressing natural resource concerns.

In fiscal year 2015, NRCS California is requesting CIG project pre-proposals that focus on one or more of the following natural resource issues: water quality/quantity; air quality and climate change; energy conservation; waste recycling; and wildlife habitat. The CIG detailed proposal announcement and project requirements can be found at www.grants.gov, the California NRCS Programs webpage, or by contacting Erik Beardsley at Erik.Beardsley@ca.usda.gov or (530) 792-5649.

Grants to eligible entities and individuals may not exceed $75,000. Funds will be awarded through a statewide competitive grants process. Eligible applicants include eligible state and local government, nongovernment organizations, eligible private business or individuals for competitive consideration of grant awards for projects between one and three years in duration.

Applications for this pre-proposal phase must be received by NRCS before 4:30 p.m. on April 10. NRCS will announce selected pre-proposal applications by May 1. Selected applicants will then be required to submit a full proposal package to NRCS before 4:30 p.m. on June 5.

NRCS has provided leadership in a partnership effort to help America’s private landowners and managers conserve their soil, water and other natural resources since 1935.

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California Projects in New USDA Regional Conservation Partnership Program

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack has announced 115 high-impact projects across all 50 states and the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico will receive more than $370 million in federal funding as part of the new USDA Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP).  In addition, these projects will leverage an estimated $400 million more in partner contributions—for a total of nearly $800 million—to improve the nation’s water quality, support wildlife habitat and enhance the environment.

“This is an entirely new approach to conservation efforts,” said Secretary Vilsack. “These partnerships empower communities to set priorities and lead the way on conservation efforts important for their region. They also encourage private sector investment so we can make an impact that’s well beyond what the Federal government could accomplish on its own.”

The RCPP competitively awards funds to conservation projects designed by local partners specifically for their region. Eligible partners include private companies, universities, non-profit organizations, local and tribal governments and others joining with agricultural and conservation organizations and producers to invest money, manpower and materials to their proposed initiatives.

Through the RCPP, partners propose conservation projects to improve soil health, water quality and water use efficiency, wildlife habitat, and other related natural resources on private lands.

Four of the selected projects are connected to California:

1) Expansion of Waterbird Habitat – The current sequence of events for rice production creates a situation where birds are frequently left with abrupt changes in habitat availability. The proposal extends the “watering” season of flooded rice fields beyond just the production phase and adds shallow water habitat in the winter/spring and fall months. This proposal supports the California Rice Commission in expanding the Waterbird Habitat Enhancement Program (WHEP) by 50 percent, thus enhancing the wildlife value of 165,000 acres of rice and the long term sustainability of rice agriculture.

2) Rice Stewardship Partnership – The Rice Stewardship Partnership, composed of Ducks Unlimited, the USA Rice Federation, and 44 collaborating partners, will assist up to 800 rice producers to address water quantity, water quality, and wildlife habitat across 380,000 acres in Mississippi, Arkansas, California, Louisiana, Missouri, and Texas.

3) Tricolored Blackbird Habitat – The Tricolored Blackbird once was abundant in California with a population in the millions. It now has an estimated 145,000 birds remaining statewide, and many predict that it is heading toward extinction. This proposal is a partnership between the dairy industry and conservation groups, with Audobon California as the lead partner, to address the factors that challenge California dairy farmers and threaten Tricolored Blackbirds, with the goal of finding a sustainable solution for management of colonies on farms and saving the Tricolored Blackbird from extinction.

4) Klamath-Rogue Woodland Health and Habitat Conservation – Many at-risk and listed species depend on quality oak woodlands that are threatened by conifer encroachment, densification, and severe wildfires in this project area, covering portions of Oregon and California. Working with landowners, including historically underserved producers, and using a sound, science-based approach, the partners will target 3,200 high-priority acres recently identified in a Conservation Implementation Strategy to preserve, enhance, and restore the structural diversity, ecological function, and overall health and persistence of oak habitats and their watersheds.

A complete list of the projects and their descriptions is available on the NRCS website.

 

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Agriculture Recognized by Governor’s Environmental and Economic Leadership Awards

Agriculture Environmental and Economic Leadership Awards

What do Joseph Gallo Farms, Gills Onions and Parducci Wine Cellars have in common? Yes, they are all California farms with well-known, high-quality products, but they have something else in common. They are all past winners of a Governor’s Environmental and Economic Leadership Award (GEELA), the state’s highest environmental honor.

This year, for the first time, GEELA has an agricultural category titled “Agricultural Ecosystem Services”. This category was designed for farmers and ranchers that demonstrate innovative and sustainable approaches to water conservation, efficiency and protection of working ecosystems.

CDFA has defined Ecosystem Services in agriculture as “the multiple benefits we gain from farming and ranching including crop and livestock production.

In addition to valuable open space and wildlife habitat, the management decisions and conservation practices of farmers and ranchers also enhance environmental quality, provide recreational opportunities and offer social benefits.”

CDFA recognizes there are many farmers and ranchers doing a lot on water conservation, especially in consideration of the drought.

In less than two weeks, the current application process will close for GEELA. Applications will be accepted through July 11, 2014. We hope farmers and ranchers will consider applying. Click here to apply.