Drought takes toll on birds, Pacific Flyway

Birds take flight in the Pacific Flyway near Sacramento. (Photo: Department of Fish and Game)

Summer is a relatively quiet time for birds in California’s Central Valley, as most of the ducks and geese are breeding in the north. But this year is more quiet than usual.

According to a recent survey conducted by the Department of Fish Wildlife, the number of breeding ducks remaining in California this season is 23 percent below the long-term average. The decline speaks to the significant degradation of habitat in the Central Valley due to lack of precipitation.

 Millions upon millions of birds rely on the Central Valley as a vital stop on the Pacific Flyway, sort of a migratory superhighway between Alaska and Patagonia.

Every corner of the state is feeling the pain of the drought. It is having a devastating effect on birds, just as it is hurting communities and agriculture. As California’s severe drought is felt more keenly, the Legislature’s efforts to approve a water bond for the November ballot have become all the more imperative.

California needs both short-term relief and a long-term strategy for water use, and both priorities must be  represented in any water bond. Failing to approve a new water bond for the ballot would represent a failure by the State government to effectively respond to the drought and plan for our future.

The Legislature approved water bond language in 2009, but has pulled it from subsequent ballots for lack of support. That $11.1 billion bond is currently slated for a vote in 2014, but few support it, and the consensus is that it needs to be replaced with a bond measure that better reflects the realities of the drought. And it must have enough support that its chances of passage are strong.

It shouldn’t be a surprise that lawmakers have had a difficult time agreeing on a new bond this legislative session. So much is at stake. Multiple bills ground their way through the Assembly and Senate this year and, despite a flurry of negotiations right before the July break, lawmakers will still need to complete the work in August.

Nowhere in California has the drought been harder felt than in the Central Valley, where natural resources support a thriving agricultural economy, growing communities, and vital habitat for birds and other wildlife. So it is not surprising that the discussions on the water bond focus on the Central Valley.

Many of the same things that make the Valley so important for agriculture and communities also make it of hemispheric importance for birds. Millions upon millions of birds rely on the Central Valley as a vital stop on the Pacific Flyway, sort of a migratory superhighway between Alaska and Patagonia.

A hundred years ago, the Central Valley looked very different than it does today. Rivers and streams meandered across the landscape, and much of the area was natural wetland and floodplain habitat. That all changed as the water was tamed to accommodate agriculture and community development, and as much as 95 percent of the area’s wetland habitat disappeared.

Acknowledging the massive impacts from federal and state irrigation projects, Congress in 1992 passed the Central Valley Project Improvement Act to support habitat for birds, fish and other wildlife. This legislation mandated minimum allocations of water to the network of federal wildlife refuges, state wildlife areas and private wetlands in the Central Valley.

Every serious bond proposal to emerge from negotiations in the legislature accepts California’s responsibility to provide water to these refuges, as well as the need to fund watershed protection and habitat restoration throughout the state. This represents only a small fraction of the cost of the bond, but will produce long-lasting ecological benefits and will safeguard prior public investments.

Any long-term plan for water use – that is to say, any water bond – that fails to address the future needs of birds and habitat should be considered a failure. This will not only be because of the ecological destruction that will ensue, but also because of the failed opportunity to create a comprehensive plan to provide for California’s future water use.

Ed’s Note:  Brigid McCormack is the executive director of Audubon California.

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