On September 24th, the Board of Directors of the Delta Conservancy held their quarterly meeting. On the agenda, a presentation on a new program for bird-friendly agricultural practices being rolled out in the Delta later this year, and a discussion on initial preparations for potential water bond funds.
Applying bird-friendly agricultural practices in the Delta
Valerie Calegari gave a presentation to the board members on a new program for Delta farmers to encourage agricultural practices that can benefit migratory birds. She began by saying that for the past four years, she has been working with farmers on the edge of the Delta in Solano, Yolo and San Joaquin counties and even down south as far as Merced County who are interested in interested in keeping their land in production but maximizing it for bird use. Today, she is here to talk about a new program that the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) will be rolling out later this year that will pay farmers in the Delta to manage their post harvest croplands in a way that supports more migratory water birds.
She then presented a picture of a least sandpiper, noting that it’s about the size of a sparrow and it travels twice a year from its breeding grounds in the Arctic to as far south as Brazil and Chile. “This little bird needs to stop numerous times in its journey of thousands of miles to get food resources and to have places where it can rest safely and one of the most important places in its journey is the Central Valley,” she said. “This is not the only bird that uses the Central Valley in its migration. We know that in some years, as many as 7 million birds, most of them ducks and geese, will come through the Central Valley and the Delta at some point. We also know that the wetlands that used to support these birds have been diminished by about 90%, and so what that means is that the lands that are still here and supporting waterfowl, water birds, and shore birds really need to be managed in a way that maximizes their ability to feed the birds that are coming through.”
As a result of the loss of habitat, 40% of the shorebirds are experiencing declines, she said. “One of the things that we can do in this area is provide them better access to the food resources that are available, especially on croplands.”
She then presented a chart showing the distribution of migratory bird critical habitat in the Central Valley and noted that agriculture provides more than half of that habitat. “What this program is trying to do is to make available the food resources that are already in post-harvest fields,” she said. “We have lots of corn that doesn’t make it into the food chain; we have rice that’s left after harvest, but in a lot of cases, the birds can’t access this just because of the structure, just because of the way that the grains are harvested.”
A lot of the program is focused on cranes, she said. “Cranes are one of the really important species in the Delta,” she said. “The greater sandhill crane is a species of conservation concern and there are a lot of opportunities to offer them food in the form of corn and invertebrates that live in the corn.”
The Migratory Bird Conservation Partnership is a partnership between Point Blue Conservation Science, the Nature Conservancy, and California Audubon with the goal of protecting the wetlands and agricultural lands that support migratory bird populations, she said. The group has been active since 2008 and has had a number of successes, such as the rice program still in place in the Sacramento Valley, securing reliable water for wetlands, and recently they were able to ensure the Klamath received some water in the refuge, she said. “One of the really important things about this partnership is that it’s science based so all of the programs that we propose and all of the policies that we promote are based on actual research that we’ve done, and so in the past 5 years ago, we have nine publications that have come out of the research that we’ve done.”
Ms. Calegari then gave the background on how the Delta program came about. About 5 years ago, the partnership began working with the rice commission and Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) to find ways to make the rice grown in the Sacramento Valley more available to shorebirds. “In order to make a program like this work, you don’t have to just understand the science behind it; you really have to work with the farmers, so we started by having workshops with rice growers to find out and really understand what all the different processes were throughout the year in producing rice,” she said. “We knew how we could make these ricelands more available for birds, but we didn’t know how it would be possible to do it without impacting the rice farmers economically, because who is going to take on bird management if you can’t make your bottom line.”
They tested the practices on a few rice farms in Colusa County to see if it was practical for the farmer and whether the birds would respond, and found both were possible. So they held more workshops, and in 2011, the NRCS conducted a pilot program in Glenn and Colusa County. “Because of the outreach we had done, we were able to get full enrollment, so we were able to spend all the money that was available,” she said. “We did some research again to see if these practices were leading to more birds and we found that they were. So the following year, we had eight counties enrolled, and right now, four years later, we have 120,000 acres of ricelands that are enrolled in this program where farmers are being paid for the practices they are carrying on. We now have 220 farms enrolled in this program.”
Farmers sign up to participate for three years, so the practices will continue to be carried out for the next few years, and how to make these practices become permanent is an issue, she said. But she pointed out that they are only working with farmers on a voluntary basis, they are not taking any land out of production, and the cost is relatively low. “The NRCS has offered $10 million to provide these acres of habitat,” she said. “If we were to buy that same amount of land and manage it, it would be even more expensive than buying it over the long term – we’d be spending 100 times that, at least.”
She then described some of the practices that the rice farmers are using. One of them is called variable drawdown. On a lot of rice fields, water is held until the end of January when duck season is over; the farmers pull the boards and relatively quickly it goes from a wet environment to a dry environment, she said. “The period between the two is really great for shorebirds because shorebirds will come into wetlands that are between two and four inches and they’ll have a feast, but that only lasts for probably less than a week,” she said. “So rather than pulling all the boards at once, we asked them to pull one board at a time, so that slows it down and you get a variable level for different types of shorebirds … We also ask farmers to stagger their drawdown, so if they have a hundred acres, they will dry out one 25-acre field, another 25-acre field the next week, and at the end of four weeks. What we found is that the fields that have undergone a staggered drawdown support 8 times the abundance of water birds than the fields that are traditionally drawn down support, so basically for the cost of sending someone out there four times as opposed to one to pull the boards, we see a pretty dramatic response.” She added that the program provides funding to water up the fields if the farmers aren’t already doing that.
Another practice in the rice program is to create actual nesting habitat for the shorebirds nesting in the Central Valley during the summertime, such as the black neck stilts, American avocets, and black terns. “What we’re asking farmers to do there is to create islands, either in their rice or in a habitat pond, if they have one of those, keep them free of vegetation and provide at least three per field,” she said. “What that does is it provides a place for shorebirds to nest and to be safe from predators. We and NRCS offered funding to flatten the checks between rice so they had a flat surface, and again, the surveys that we did found that we had about four times the amount of shorebirds nesting on those levees.”
Seeking similar success to the rice program, the NRCS is rolling out a new program for the Delta called the Wetland Habitat Enhancement Program. Funding for the program will come from special funding provided for places such as the Delta that have been designated as Critical Conservation Areas.
The Wetland Habitat Enhancement Program will enhance the habitat value of the Delta without taking any land out of production, it will provide incentive payments, and farmers can sign up for one practice or all of the practices, she said. It’s a short-term program; a lot of the practices only involve management for a couple of months in the course of the year. It’s a three-year commitment, so there’s no long term commitment, no conservation easement, and there’s no monitoring beyond the three year period, so it’s created to be as flexible as possible, she said.
Crops covered in the program include corn, rice and fallowed land, wheat, garbanzo beans, sunflower, and safflower, so if those are harvested early, there are opportunities to manage those in the early fall in ways that will support birds like the sandpiper and other shorebirds, she said.
She then discussed the specific practices they were planning to try in the Delta. One of the programs available is a late summer/early fall flood up. “What this is asking farmers to do is to actually flood their fields in as early as July, August, and September, so this is only going to be possible on properties that are growing early season crops or perhaps are fallow,” she said. “It’s also only possible on properties where the soils is a little bit more dense or you have more clay, because what we’re asking farmers to do is put water on these fields to that there is habitat available when the shorebirds first show up, which, for a shorebird, can be as early as July.”
In the Central Valley, there aren’t a lot of places for shorebirds to stop in July as the land is in production, she said. “We did a pilot program last year, working with farmers on 200 acres,” she said. “This is a property in Colusa County, and it looks a lot like a winter landscape, but this is the July landscape. The minute that the water became available, the shorebirds came in. They are here but they don’t have resources, so they were very hungry.”
Another practice is to flood post-harvest corn to benefit the sandhill cranes. “There are a lot of places in the Delta where cranes roost, but they will only travel up to 5 kilometers to feed during the day and at the end of that, they need to come back to a flooded area that’s safe from predators, and by creating more of these roost sites, we’re basically offering them access to more feeding opportunities, so they will be able to spread out a little more and have access to the corn that they need.”
As an alternative to flooding post-harvest corn, another practice is to keep it dry and instead, chop it and roll it, she said. “This basically opens up the structure so that the cranes and the geese can come in and pick up the corn that’s there. It’s not tuned over into the soil and this is to provide access to the resource.”
With a staggered flood-up, land managers are asked to provide a pulse of water after harvest every two weeks to bring invertebrates to the surface to have more food resources available, and with this practice, the farmers would be paid for the cost of the water, she said. The staggered drawdown asks the farmers to slow down their drainage processes and allow for mudflats and shallow water in the month of February.
She said the technical requirements are still being ironed out by NRCS; there will be more information at the workshops. The enrollment period will be in December and January, and that’s when they will need to engage with farmers to come and learn about the project.
“The goal here is very modest,” she said. “We’re hoping to get 3000 acres signed up in this first year. It’s really important to get those sign ups as it will provide feedback to the NRCS that this is a program that people are willing to take on. If it’s successful, we’re hoping this can become an ongoing program.”
Planning for water bond funds
Executive Officer Campbell Ingram discussed the possibility of water bond funds with the Board members. If voters approve the $7.5 billion measure in November, the Delta Conservancy would receive $50 million for ‘competitive grants for multi-benefit ecosystem and watershed protection and restoration projects in accordance with statewide priorities,’ according to the language of the bond. “It also lists multiple benefit water quality, water supply and watershed protection and restoration projects,” said Campbell Ingram. “There’s language that says it can assist in water-related agricultural sustainability projects, and I think the intent there is that we can link investment in ag sustainability to impacts from restoration, and use bond funding to support projects that would help address those impacts.”
“The initial thinking is to structure ourselves to move $10 million per year for 5 years, and we would be allowed 5% of that for administration to support those programs and 10% for planning and monitoring,” he said. “Currently we’re meeting with our sister conservancies, particularly the Sierra Nevada Conservancy to learn from their experience.”
The Conservancy staff will also be meeting with Coalition to Support Delta Projects, as they have pulled together list of 54 projects which have been well vetted with the Delta communities and the agencies, and seemed to have support for moving forward. They are also considering projects they would want to move early on. The staff needs to develop criteria for solicitations that would include public participation, working with board to define criteria, and then taking out for public review. “We’re going to try and develop criteria and get them approved and publicly vetted by the fall so that we are ready to go,” said Mr. Ingram.
Campbell was asked how they arrived at the 5-year horizon for dispersing bond funds, and if that was a time horizon consistent with other agencies. “It’s an initial thought that we’ve put out there to get feedback on, so we’re completely open to what we hear,” said Mr. Ingram. “We think it’s important to establish a quick ambitious target.”
Board member Karen Finn pointed out that it’s up to the legislature to decide how fast the funds will be appropriated. “The Conservancy or agency will put forth a proposal, but it doesn’t mean the legislature will agree and appropriate $10 million a year for five years,” said she said. “That’s awfully ambitious, I will say, for a small agency that hasn’t had any experience. … It’s going to take a good year to develop your competitive guidelines and your competitive requirements. That’s a unique situation; no conservancy has done a competitive program, so that is a unique feature of this bond.”
Other meeting notes …
BDCP UPDATE: The Bay Delta Conservation Plan’s draft EIR/EIS will be recirculated early next year. The new documents will address issues in the EPA’s letter, as well as other changes to the BDCP that may include further reductions in the footprint of the facilities themselves. The full scope of the recirculation will be available in November. “I think the intent is to try to very succinctly talk about the changes rather than inundate with thousands of pages of documentation,” said Mr. Ingram. “It is expected that the document will be ready in early 2015, and standard practice is that a recirculation would have a 45 day comment period, but that’s really to be determined based on what ultimately the scope is and what the document looks like when its ready to be recirculated.”
NEW CONSERVANCY BOARD MEMBER DOLLY SANDOVAL: The Conservancy welcomed new appointee Dolly Sandoval to the meeting; she was appointed by the Governor in September and is currently awaiting Senate confirmation.
LAND MANAGEMENT WORKGROUP: The Land Management Workgroup met in late June, late August, and is scheduled to meet the following week, Campbell Ingram said. They are working with participants in the Delta Dialogue process, and the group is currently focusing on identifying an inventory of publicly owned lands in the Delta, and the overlapping restoration objectives of the BDCP and other HCP/NCCPs in the area.
ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT: The logo is now final, and a similar logo is being developed for the Great Delta Trail. A brand standards logo is being developed. The next component is the marketing strategy. “We continue to struggle with the contracting for that process, so we are hoping to release our request for offers in the near term and then get that contract up and running and underway,” said Campbell Ingram.
DELTA WATERWAY CLEANUP: The Delta waterway cleanup was a success. Following the cleanup, there was a celebration at R. Kelley Farms, south of Clarksburg, where there were activities, including farm to fork demonstrations and a canning demonstration. It was well attended and a good event.
COORDINATION AND COLLABORATION: The Delta Conservancy has been requested by state and federal agencies to provide coordination for invasive species control throughout the Delta. The objective is to establish a framework for strategic planning and coordinated implementation, education and outreach, data management, research, and funding. The first meeting was held in August with federal and state agencies responsible for managing or controlling invasive species participating. The next meeting is scheduled for November.
CONCEPT PROPOSALS ACCEPTED FOR REGIONAL CONSERVATION PARTNERSHIP PROGRAM (RCPP): The Conservancy’s concept proposals for two projects have been accepted. One project would create an incentive program for producers and landowners in the Delta to convert farmland to managed wetlands, and another project would control invasive weeds in riparian zones and irrigation ditches, replacing invasive weeds with native riparian vegetation where appropriate. Staff is working on developing full proposals which are due by the beginning of October.