Before the Gold Rush, the Central Valley in California was like a bathtub. Rivers filled with water which then slowly spread out through natural wetlands. This created a rich feeding ground for migrating species: salmon going to and from the ocean, birds flying from Alaska and Argentina.
But with the development of farms, dams, houses and roads over the course of the 20th century, California lost more than 90 percent of its natural wetlands and that in turn threatened the wildlife.
Now, the northern part of the Central Valley — the Sacramento Valley — looks like a quilt of perfectly level rice fields, a vastly productive area that has made the state second only to the Mississippi Delta in rice production.
That dramatic change in the landscape may sound grim, but in California’s rice country, some strange bedfellows are working together to address the historic loss of wildlife habitat, and to insure rice farming is part of the solution.
Just outside the tiny town of Richvale this past winter, fourth-generation farmer Josh Sheppard maneuvers his ATV on levees, his dog Tonka in tow.
When Sheppard talks about the Calrose sushi rice he grows, he gets almost poetic. “It’s an amazing thing to witness. You can see the plants growing under the water on nice warm night,” he says. Driving up the next morning, he continues: “It’s satisfying to see rice seed come through the water and totally change the landscape of the field.”
He shows me rice fields flooded with a few inches of water — but it feels more like we were on a bird-watching tour. Sheppard points out egrets and herons, Sandhill Cranes, curlews, ibis, and countless ducks and geese filling whole sections of rice fields.
A lot of these are migratory birds, but they find a welcome rest stop on a working farm.
“They use these rice fields as their surrogate wetlands that used to naturally exist 100 years ago,” Sheppard explains. “Most of those natural wetlands have been developed over, but these rice fields are a perfect substitute.”
When I meet Sheppard in early February, he is purposely adjusting the water levels in his fields — all for the birds. As his dog splashes in the water, Sheppard kneels on a levee at a concrete gate, tugging at a few boards of lumber which hold all the water in the field.
Government and non-profit groups pay Sheppard and other farmers to add water to some fields or release it bit by bit over a month. That gives migrating birds a few more weeks of feeding time by turning the Sacramento Valley into a checkerboard of simulated wetlands and mudflats. Some birds prefer fields with a few inches of water on them, others like looking for bugs in puddles. These different habitats attract various birds which need to fuel up before their long journeys.
I’m no birder, but I spot a curlew with a long, curved beak, and Sheppard points out a piper: “That shorter-legged guy, see them dipping into the shallow water there, looking for bugs? Eating breakfast is what they’re doing.”
It would be much more efficient, and less risky for his whole farming season, to release all of this water at once, early.
“To hold water a little longer,” he says, “that was a concept a little bit foreign to us at the beginning.”
Sheppard describes a meeting he attended in 2008: A bunch of bird conservationists and rice farmers gathered in a room with a whiteboard, offered ideas about what certain bird species needed to thrive, and talked about what farmers could do after harvest to make the Sacramento Valley hospitable for migrating birds.
“When we really realized the benefit of it it, it become kind of like ‘Oh heck yeah we're going to do that,’” Sheppard says. Especially with conservation groups offering to offset some of the costs of labor and water, he says: “Why would we not?”
A recent study of just one of these programs, the Nature Conservancy’s BirdReturns, showed birds use managed-rice fields at rates up to three times higher than ever recorded.
Of course, creating good bird habitat also helps create good PR for the rice industry.
Rice is among California’s top-ten most water-intensive crops. The California Rice Commission’s website homepage features a video of snow geese landing on a field.
But Sheppard himself admits: “There was a time even when the rice industry, we weren’t the poster child of all the environmental stuff that we have adopted.”
He’s talking about the old practice of burning rice fields.
Putting out the fires
As kid, Jessica Lundberg — a third-generation member of Lundberg Family Farms — heard people complain that rice farmers mucked up the air by burning fields, a cheap and effective way to get rid of the straw left over after rice harvest.
“It was it was terrible,” she remembers. “All of the fields would go up and maybe a two or three week period in the valley was just socked in with smoke, and you couldn't really even see the foothills.”
Her family’s business stopped burning in the 1960s. Her grandparents, originally from Scandinavia, then the Midwest, lived through the Dust Bowl before settling here, and saw how farmers needed to steward the land.
“If that's your mentality if you're going into it thinking, ‘I have to take care of all of this,’ then you start looking for solutions, you start asking questions,” she says.
They passed that belief system onto their sons, who took over the business. Lundberg says her dad always kept an Audubon book in his truck, and taught her to learn seasons of wildlife, as well as farming.
In the 1990s, the state significantly restricted burning in rice country, so farmers started flooding fields, instead, to decompose that rice straw.
“The water in the fields,” she says, “it’s a great habitat for insects,” which in turn attract birds.
She points out that the area sits right on the Pacific Flyway for migrating birds. So once the burning stopped, the birds began landing and feeding again.
“It took several years, but it doesn't take birds long to tell their friends that there's some good stuff going on over here,” she says.
Millions of migrating birds visit the Sacramento Valley, but it’s still working farmland, which means birds and farmers — driving big machines — want to be in the same fields at the same time.
Saving eggs from machines
I meet with Regina Stafford and her team from the California Waterfowl Association in a rice field that was about to get tilled. They have two big ATVs, a rope, and tin cans filled with gravel. It’s called a “drag rope,” and they tie it between the two ATVs.
“The rope spins on swivels as we go. It’s nothing high-tech for sure!” Stafford says.
Ducks love to nest in dry rice fields before planting season. But when workers bring out the big machinery, they could easily miss the nests and crush them, eggs and all.
To avoid that, Stafford and her Egg Salvage team drive these ATVs slowly, in parallel, down the bumpy field, using these simple noisemakers to flush the ducks.
Suddenly, one of her colleagues calls out: “Bird! Bird! Bird!”
“We just had a hen flush from the nest,” Stafford explains, “so we’re going to stop and check it out.”
Team members placed the eggs in cartons and added some down for protection.
All the salvaged eggs this team collects go to a nearby hatchery, where they mature into ducks.
A few weeks later, Regina Stafford is on a private ranch, leading an educational program, teaching kids how to put identifying bands on ducks’ legs, and how to release them into the habitat.
She warns a group of kids, each hanging onto a duck: “Remember, they can’t fly, so we can’t do any duck chucking.”
The kids squat at the edge of the water, and on the count of three release the ducks.
Stafford’s organization, California Waterfowl, saved nearly 4,000 eggs last year, but it’s a hunters’ organization, and it’s a private hunting club that houses the hatchery and habitat.
So I ask: Are they just saving eggs to make more ducks for hunting?
Stafford says habitat like this, paid for by hunters, helps support all the birds that migrate through this area.
“You only conserve what you know,” she says. “We all have to come together for that as Californians, whether we agree on all of that or not. Habitat and conservation are crucial.”
A side-benefit for salmon?
So, if hunters, farmers and conservationists can come together for birds who find surrogate wetlands in these fields, perhaps other wildlife can benefit from rice.
Scientist Jacob Katz, of the organization California Trout, says that salmon can.
“Two million salmon once came through the Golden Gate into the rivers of the Central Valley. What we think we’re looking at here is the key to that kind of abundance again,” he said.
I meet Katz at a large rice farm full of swans, dowitchers, and sand hill cranes. To demonstrate his theory, Katz takes me to three different bodies of water.
First, at the Sacramento River, Katz’s colleague Jacob Montgomery dons waders and tosses a plankton net in the river to take samples, which he deposits in a plastic bag.
“What you’re looking for is movement,” Katz sas, peering into the bag. “What we'd like to see in a fertile water sample is bugs, which we simplify to fish food. What we see here is drifting sand, a little bit of plant parts, but very few bugs.”
In a nearby canal, the results are similar.
“Some floating debris, but not a lot of life, not a lot of wiggling invertebrates,” Katz says.
Finally, Montgomery gathers water from a flooded rice field.
When Katz holds up the plastic bag, he smiles.
“It’s teeming, it’s writhing,” he says. “The truth is there’s probably hundreds of thousands of individuals.”
At least tens of thousands, anyway. They’ll find the exact number later at their lab at the University of California in Davis.
If a young salmon lives in the rice fields, Katz says, “It’s going to get big, fat, robust. It’s going to pack a big lunch to trip down to ocean, and have much better chance of returning as an adult.”
Katz and his team found that by letting salmon feed in flooded rice fields they grew seven times faster than fish in the nearby river channel.
“First we'd like to see gates in our levees and our bypasses that would allow water and fish to flow out of the river and onto managed floodplains that provide them with food access with incredible habitat,” Katz says. “We upgrade our cell phones every six months, it seems like 100 years is long enough to wait for levees 2.0.”
But for some agricultural landscapes, getting fish access to rice fields and back to the rivers would be really difficult.
Since this water from flooded rice fields is so thick with great fish food, Katz would like to see hundreds of thousands of acres drained strategically back into rivers, where endangered fish populations feed.
“I think most people think that endangered species are inevitable and what our work is showing us is that that’s not the case. We’re trying to say— we’re not going back, we’re never going to be able to recreate tens or hundreds of thousands of acres of waving Tule and wetland.
But if we understand how that system works, if we understand the mechanisms that created that kind of abundance,” then, he says, we can learn how to create landscapes for the benefit of fish, birds, and agriculture.
This piece was produced in collaboration with the Food & Environment Reporting network, a non-profit, investigative news organization.