Even before Gov. Jerry Brown declared an emergency, the drought was already on everyone’s mind. Farmers, water districts, conservationists, even skiers, knew that record low precipitation had left us in bad shape. Ducks and geese knew it too. But then, they know drought well, because for a bird in California’s Central Valley, the drought is always. And it’s not just water that goes missing – it’s promises kept.
A century ago, Central Valley wetlands supported 40 million migrating waterfowl along the Pacific Flyway. By the 1980s, however, 95 percent of those wetlands had been lost to the creation pf the great agricultural engine that the Valley is today. While agriculture can sometimes provide surrogate habitat, it is not a perfect replica of natural habitat.
Acknowledging the massive impacts to wildlife from federal irrigation, Congress in 1992 passed the Central Valley Project Improvement Act (CVPIA) to support habitat for birds, fish and other wildlife in the Central Valley.
The bulk of the existent habitat in the Valley today lies in a small network of federal wildlife refuges, state wildlife areas and private wetlands. The Merced National Wildlife Refuge and the Mendota Wildlife Area around Fresno are just two.
One of the many promises in the 1992 CVPIA was that the refuges would receive enough water to meet their wildlife conservation needs. This commitment is just a tiny fraction of the water allocated elsewhere in the Valley.
However, since the legislation was passed, the refuges have received full water allotments just once, in 1995, and even that’s a stretch. In good times and bad – there’s always a water shortage in the refuges.
Crafting water policy that balances all of California’s needs has always been a challenge – even more so with the current drought. The drought bill that passed out of the House of Representatives last week is a tangled mess that would erase years of good faith negotiation and trust.
A new bill advanced this week from Sen. Dianne Feinstein is more balanced between communities, agriculture and the environment – but also seems to pave the way for steep cuts in water to refuges. We’re hopeful that as this bill moves forward the needs of the birds won’t be forgotten.
If your only understanding of the Central Valley is what you see through your windshield on Interstate 5 or Highway 99, the lush habitat of the refuges are a revelation. People are drawn to these places for hunting, wildlife viewing, camping, , learning and much more.
But the refuges play a much larger role for wildlife. For birds in particular, these refuges are an essential part of a migration that stretches far beyond California’s borders. And when we fracture that continuum by cutting the water, the effects are felt for thousands of miles in every direction.
When the refuges don’t get enough water, birds will not stop to rest as they normally should, and thus may not reach their destination. The ones that do stop will be forced to congregate in the few areas where there is water, which often leads to disease and mass die-offs. Birds that are supposed to breed in California may not, and those that are supposed to breed far north, may never get there.
This year, with the drought hanging over everyone in the Central Valley, the Bureau of Reclamation is proposing drastic cuts to the water allotments to the refuges, essentially giving even less than less than what was promised.
Drought is going to cause a lot of hurt all over California. No one – not residential communities, farmers or birds or anyone else – is going to be spared.
No one believes that this is going to be the year that the refuges get their Congressionally mandated full allotment of water. But we should at least recognize the spirit of that promise by giving the needs of the birds a legitimate role in water policy discussions.
(photo of birds at the Merced National Wildlife Refuge by Chuq Von Rospach)