Mid-Valley rice farmers can provide habitat for waterbirds
On the Internet:
• California Rice Commission: www.calrice.org/Industry+Info /Conservation+Program.htm.
• Natural Resources Conservation Service: www.nrcs.usda.gov.
Natural Resources Conservation Service offices in the Mid-Valley:
• Butte County: 534-0112.
• Colusa County: 458-2931.
• Sutter/Yuba Counties: 674-1480.
Mid-Valley rice growers can take part in a program to improve habitat for waterbirds on their land and receive federal assistance toward that end. The Waterbird Habitat Enhancement Program is conducted by the US Department of Agriculture's Natural Resources Conservation Service.
"To help wildlife resources — that's the whole reason for the program," said Paul Buttner, manager of environmental affairs for the California Rice Commission.
"Our industry holds wildlife habitat dear, and we appreciate these types of programs that give us an opportunity to expand these practices," he said last week.
The Central Valley is an integral part of the Pacific Flyway, which serves as seasonal or year-round breeding and wintering grounds for waterfowl from ducks and geese to egrets, herons and shorebirds such as plovers and sandpipers.
Since the Gold Rush, the Central Valley's 4 million acres of wetlands have been reduced to 5 percent of that total, or 200,000 acres, according to Monica Iglecia, Audubon California conservation project director who is involved with the Waterbird Habitat Enhancement Program.
"In the Sacramento Valley, 80 percent of flooded habitat consists of rice fields and 20 percent is managed wetlands," she said at a workshop in Yuba City last week to educate rice growers about the program.
The tailwater from rice fields drained before harvest plays a major role in sustaining wetlands, and the flooded paddies themselves serve as habitat.
"The program is designed to change what growers are doing in order to provide habitat on a working landscape for waterbirds," said Tim Hermansen, a wildlife biologist with the NRCS in Colusa. "The practices were made available through research and analysis."
The practices, which are intended to provide shallow-water wetlands, mudflats and nesting areas, include maintaining flooded fields at specific levels and releasing water at specified times of the year, keeping stubble at a certain height, building islands in paddies for birds to rest on, creating ponds, cultivating ground cover by seeding native vegetation in hedgerows, between fields or on retired land, and erecting nesting boxes. Growers sign contracts for one to three years and are monitored by NRCS officials.
"I think it's appropriate to call it a government-industry partnership," Buttner said. "We're utilizing federal programs, and the Rice Commission serves to help generate enthusiasm and help communicate the program opportunities to the growers."
The NRCS' Hermansen agreed the program is an example of a government-industry partnership, "especially in the development of the program and practices."
The program was conceived five or six years ago, according to Buttner.
"Growers and conservationists were put in a room. We threw all the ideas on the wall and analyzed it, and drew up practices," he said. "The program was built from the ground up — and it's not by accident it fits the industry well."
With the California Rice Commission as the industry partner, the scientific team includes Audubon California, PRBO Conservation Science and The Nature Conservancy.
In 2011, the program was implemented on a small scale with a pilot program in the Glenn-Colusa Irrigation District. In 2012, it was widened to six counties in the Sacramento Valley. Now, in its third year, eight counties are included in the program: Yuba, Sutter, Colusa and Butte as well as Glenn, Sacramento, Yolo and Placer.
About 125 rice growers on 45,000 acres participated in the program in 2012.
"We got involved because Montna Farms is involved in a lot of conservation work, and this was a program that can help with practices on the ground and enhance the population of shorebirds, wading birds and waterfowl," said Jon Munger, operations manager and rice farmer with Montna Farms. "We enjoy seeing the variety of birds that visit our fields."
Montna Farms, with rice holdings in the Dingville area of Sutter County, has employed the water management regime, modified equipment to create optimum checks for nesting, cultivated cover along ditches, and set up nesting boxes in line with the program.
The deadline for rice growers to file applications for 2013 is Feb. 15; they are encouraged to turn in paperwork well before the rush at the deadline.
For more information and application materials, prospective participants should contact the Natural Resources Conservation Service office in their respective county.