Local rice farmers could be helping to solve the climate crisis.

It’s too soon to know exactly where or how far things will head from here, but we’re happy that local agronomists are involved in the “Fish in the Fields” program. The idea is to make flooded rice fields a habitat for fish, which help control methane emissions and also could, someday, be either a protein crop or could help increase water availability to agriculture.

The big picture item is the control of methane gas. If it works here, it could work around the planet. With success here, it could mean more interest from research groups and funding. 

The pilot program being run in Yuba County is operated through a nonprofit research and natural resources policy group, Resource Renewal Institute (research teams include personnel from the University of Montana and the UC Davis Department of Watershed Sciences and others). Local experimenting started at the end of 2017. After a couple seasons of planting minnows in flooded fields, researchers are indicating there’s some success ... methane, a byproduct of rice farming and detrimental to the climate, was reduced by about 65 percent. 

Rice decomposition creates a lot of methane. There are methane-oxidizing bacteria present in the decomposing fields, which would offset greenhouse gas emissions, except that zooplankton (one step up in the food chain from bacteria) are floating around in the same water and feed off the bacteria to the extent that more methane is emitted.

How to take care of the floating plankton that eats the bacteria that would control methane? Introduce fish to eat the zooplankton. That’s what they’re doing ... introducing fish into the flooded fields. The fish eat the plankton and give the bacteria a chance to scrub the methane out.

Methane is 25 times worse than carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas, said Deborah Moskowitz, RRI president, in a story we printed Tuesday.

Not only do the fish seem to be cutting methane emissions, but the fish themselves are thriving and growing faster than under normal conditions. 

That could be good for the program and good for farmers. Somewhere down the line, the fish themselves could be some sort of crop to be harvested. Or, perhaps even better, the fish introduced into the fields could be amongst the endangered species that must be managed on our waterways. Small salmon could be released in the rice fields, eat hearty and grow up a good bit, then enjoy a higher success rate as they move back into the river system and make their way to the ocean.

If that were to happen, it could mean that less water might be needed to help flush the fish to the ocean. And that could mean more water available for farming.

That’s a whole lot of ifs. And, to be sure, there’s a whole lot of engineering to be figured out to make this idea work on any sort of scale that would be meaningful.

Still, we find it encouraging that local farmers are cooperating in experimenting with what might improve the climate and environment and strengthen their industry, all at the same time.

Our View editorials represent the opinion of the Appeal-Democrat and its editorial board and are edited by the publisher and/or editor. Members of the editorial board include: Publisher Glenn Stifflemire and Editor Steve Miller.

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