Sacramento Valley Water Birds Affected by Post-Harvest Drought

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SUTTER COUNTY --

Water managers and wildlife conservationists say the need for water isn't diminished by the end of the rice harvest.

Rice is a major part of the agricultural economy in the Sacramento Valley. Even though the growing season is over and rice is being harvested, the effects of the drought persist.

Much of the harvested rice acreage needs to be re-flooded to decompose leftover rice straw. But the water also benefits the water fowl that use the flooded fields to feed in preparation of migration.

The lack of water in California has cut down the rice acreage planted this year. As much as 30 percent of the rice fields went unplanted.

"Not having rice crops in the ground is pretty darn devastating to the birds, water fowl, shore birds, geese, ducks," said John Munger who runs Montna Farms.

He's had to cut acreage by 40 percent because of the drought.

Fewer acres planted means fewer fields being flooded for both growing rice and post-harvest flooding. Half of the millions of birds on the Pacific Flyway that feed in the Sacramento Valley rely on leftover rice in the fields after harvest.

Conservationists say farming and wetlands are joined at the hip because of the shrinkage of natural marshes over the years.

"These birds are heavily dependent on ag lands, and in the Sacramento Valley that's primarily rice to offset some of that habitat loss," said Virgina Getz of Ducks Unlimited.

Growers and wildlife activists are hoping the El Nino rains will reach Northern California this winter, but that can't be predicted.

"Last year we had a big heavy rain in December that kind of saved things in the valley ... we can hope for the same kind of thing this year, but I wouldn't count on it," Getz said.

"If we don't have El Nino, we're back to the same amount of rainfall we've had the past few years, the situation could be pretty dire," Munger said.