Dying of Thirst

For two decades, the U.S. government has failed to deliver enough water to California wildlife refuges, and migratory birds have suffered mightily as a result.


(page 3 of 3)

D. Ross Cameron

R.J. Waldron said he expects problems this fall if the wetlands don't receive enough water.

Ortega, 36, has been the manager of the Grasslands for five years. He grew up in Dos Palos, a small agricultural town in Merced County and eventually studied animal science and ecology at Cal Poly, before later studying avian science at UC Davis. He loves birds about as much as anyone. He also hunts them. Last season, he shot and later ate 20 ducks and geese.

Ortega calls hunters “sportsmen conservationists.” Indeed, duck and goose hunters have long been a powerful environmental conservation force in California. Through state license fees and game tags and private duck club membership dues, waterfowl hunters subsidize the management and preservation of wetlands waterfowl habitat. If it weren’t for hunters, in fact, there might be no wetlands bird habitat at all. In the 1940s, bird hunters joined with cattlemen and sued farming districts that benefited from the construction of Friant Dam, a project built across the San Joaquin River that stanched the flow of water to the Grasslands. The plaintiffs won, effectively locking in baseline water rights on land protected by long-term easements—a major victory for birds and the people who love them.

But as a conservationist managing a wildlife refuge south of the delta, Ortega finds himself in an unlikely situation—aligned in the fight for water with San Joaquin Valley farmers and directly at odds with environmentalists and fishermen who advocate to protect Chinook salmon, which also desperately need water. For instance, the fishermen’s group, Golden Gate Salmon Association, is almost constantly locked in a battle to protect fish by keeping sufficient water flows in the delta and away from the export pumps that south-of delta farms and wetlands rely on.

“Everybody in Northern California should be concerned about south-of delta water exports,” said Victor Gonella, founder of the Golden Gate Salmon Association. Gonella is a fisherman as well as an avid waterfowl hunter and wetlands advocate.

This conflicting point of view among conservation groups is reflected in their respective reactions to recent drought relief legislation: South-of-delta waterfowl groups, said Ortega, support current legislation from Feinstein and U.S. Rep. John Garamendi, D-Walnut Grove, that would alter delta pumping restrictions with the intention of bringing relief to farmers. The Golden Gate Salmon Association, on the other hand, opposes the legislation. “A lot of people don’t really want to acknowledge it, but there are some conflicting ideologies even within the environmental community,” Ortega said.

He believes that the laws protecting Chinook salmon are costing refuges their water without having apparent benefits for the fish. The winter-run Chinook has been listed as endangered since 1994, and its numbers have taken a precarious plunge in the last few years. Also verging on extinction is the delta smelt—the biological indicator that the estuary it lives in is in crisis.

Ortega is aligned politically—or at last hydro-politically—with the influential Westlands Water District, which represents Big Ag and is perhaps the arch nemesis of salmon fishery advocates. Like the spokespeople for Westlands, which is a few miles south of the Grasslands, Ortega would like to see delta pumping restrictions (which protect not just smelt and salmon but also basic delta water quality) modified so that water can be more reliably diverted from the estuary—something that the current Feinstein legislation would do. “The restrictions protecting salmon through the spring create real limitations for us,” he said of the south-of-delta refuges like the Grasslands. “In March and April, we were watching our entire level-2 allocation flow into the bay every day, and I was thinking, ‘There goes all the water I needed to maintain the largest remaining wetland in the western U.S.’ ”

Hertel also acknowledged that many refuges and farms are supplied by the same conveyance system—but they aren’t necessarily on the same team. “In some cases, when one benefits, the other benefits,” she said. “But there are definitely cases where wetlands are competing with these farmers for the same block of water.”

Either way, Waldron said he expects potential problems this fall if the wetlands are not adequately supplied with water. “The snow goose population has exploded,” he said. “When those birds come back here, they’re going to need a home. They need water.”


For all the heel dragging and reluctance of the Bureau of Reclamation to fulfill its obligations to wildlife refuges, the agency may be making some progress in meeting its responsibilities. Though wetlands advocates remain frustrated, bureau spokesperson Hunt said his agency is slowly gaining ground in acquiring the level-4 refuge water. On May 6, the Bureau green-lighted a water-recycling project that would produce 59,000 acre-feet of water each year from the cities of Turlock and Modesto. A portion of that recycled water will be devoted to refuge level-4 water needs.

The challenge now is finding more water that is not yet being used, or buying it—an unlikely prospect in a water market dominated by wealthy almond growers who will pay hundreds of dollars per acre-foot. Hunt said that devoting money to acquiring level-4 water detracts directly from the money available to secure baseline level-2 water. “It’s all tradeoffs—you’ve only got so much money, and you have to decide in any given scenario which is the best way to spend the money we have.”

The Central Valley Project Improvement Act, intended to make California’s main water delivery system more compatible with wildlife and fish populations, did create some significant benefits for wildlife. Prior to 1992, the Central Valley wetlands received just a trickle of water. The Grasslands, for example, was historically allocated just 50,000-acre-feet a year, Ortega said. That wasn’t enough, so polluted water was drawn from drainage ditches to keep the wetland alive. The Improvement Act eliminated this dependence on farm tailings by providing the Grasslands with 75,000 acre-feet of new water from the Central Valley Project each year. That formed the level-2 baseline water supply.

But the 1992 law is largely recognized for its failures. Since it was passed, duck populations have steadily declined. The breeding mallard population, for example, has dropped from about 400,000 to 300,000 in the past 24 years, according to surveys by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife.

The law also mandated doubling the historic naturally reproducing populations of Chinook salmon. However, the Sacramento winter-run Chinook is nearly extinct, and the commercial salmon fishery, reliant on the fall-run Chinook, is also barely clinging to life.

Wetlands advocates and hunters are nervous about the months ahead. “We have 35,000 acres to the south and 35,000 acres to the north,” Ortega says as he drives west along a levee in the Grasslands. It’s late spring, the region is green, and the canal is filled with water. But the summer heat is building. The marsh mud is drying out and cracking, and soon it will be time for another round of irrigation. Life would wither away here without water.

Indeed, if future water conditions deteriorate and the Central Valley wetlands shrink, the migratory birds might not come back.

Published online on July 5, 2016 at 8:11 a.m.

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