Ecosystem Services

CRC partnerships help fuel conservation in rice fields

By Paul Buttner, Environmental Affairs Manager, California Rice Commission

This was another eventful year as the California Rice Commission (CRC) successfully helped deliver programs to growers who willingly engage in wildlife conservation. It was especially gratifying that, in this third year of drought, our partnerships with the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and other conservation groups facilitated ecosystem services that proved workable for wildlife protection and for our rice growers. Here is a rundown of some of the year’s conservation activities:

Waterbird Habitat Enhancement Program (WHEP)

Black-necked Stilt in rice country.

Black-necked Stilt in rice country.

The WHEP is a special initiative created from the ground up by California NRCS, in coordination with the CRC and three of our key conservation partners – Audubon California, Point Blue Conservation Science and The Nature Conservancy. It provides costshare incentives for key practices that enhance the value of rice fields in production, including special water management, nesting islands and dedicated habitat areas.

The CRC just released our latest wildlife publication titled Bird-Friendly Farming in California Rice Fields. This document chronicles the tremendous success of WHEP – made possible through the tremendous support of the NRCS, which has provided approximately $12 million in WHEP support since 2011.

Efforts to renew contracts in this program hit a programmatic challenge. To address this, the CRC worked to promote the creation of a new conservation program framework in the Farm Bill called the Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP), with the goal of expanding and continuing WHEP-type practices over a longer term.

Regional Conservation Partnership Program
The RCPP designates conservation funding to certain specially designated regions, such as the Central Valley, part of what NRCS calls Critical Conservation Areas (CCAs). The CCA that includes California rice fields is called the California Bay-Delta CCA, which includes the Pacific Flyway where the migration of millions of birds occurs each year.

In addition to expansion and refinement of WHEP practices, our recently submitted RCPP proposal would include the development of a new waterfowl nesting component. This element would require many technical and policy issues to be addressed to become a reality. We welcome this opportunity to add significant amounts of rotational uplands nesting habitat to our wildlife resume.

We propose folding in an exciting new conservation program called “BirdReturns” into the RCPP. We are currently in year two of the BirdReturns program, with 8,000 acres of early fall flooded habitat and plans for another 6,000 acres of spring wildlife habitat in 2015. We appreciate our BirdReturns partnership with The Nature Conservancy and its private donors who understand the great conservation value Sacramento Valley rice fields provide for wildlife habitat. This program complements WHEP well by attracting applicants that won’t or can’t participate in WHEP but want to implement similar conservation program options.

New Winter Flooding Program
We are delighted to have the NRCS working with us in an expedited fashion to accommodate the large numbers of waterfowl expected to be traveling through the Pacific Flyway this winter. Experts indicate that northern nesting habitat conditions have been excellent even while California continues its drought conditions. Therefore, it appears there will be greater numbers of birds coming to find reduced wintering habitat in California. The rice industry, normally flooding 250,000 to 300,000 acres in the winter, could be down to as little as 50,000, creating a “perfect storm” for waterbirds in the Valley.

Thankfully, NRCS took this threat seriously and has helped the situation for the benefit of waterbirds. The CRC hosted a recent workshop to promote this program, which is expected to increase the amount of flooded rice in the 2014-15 winter season by up to 10,000 acres.

The CRC continues to search for ways to provide proper incentives for conservation in rice fields. We have a tremendous environmental story to tell and benefit from the foresight of the NRCS and strong partnerships with conservation groups, including The Nature Conservancy, Audubon California, Point Blue Conservation Science, Ducks Unlimited and California Waterfowl.

Contact Paul Buttner: pbuttner@calrice.org