A Big Boost for Winter Rice Wildlife Habitat
By Paul Buttner
Governor Brown recently signed an important bill carried by Assembly Member Aguiar-Curry to enact the California Winter Rice Habitat Incentive Program (AB 2348). This marks the first time that the significant habitat value of California’s winter-flooded ricelands is specifically highlighted in state law and establishes a winter flooding habitat incentives program to be administered by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (“Department”) to help preserve bird habitat in the Sacramento Valley.
In addition, $5 million has been authorized in the current state budget to support the initial development and start-up of this exciting new program.
The California rice industry is very pleased to see this important program be created. Our flooded rice fields provide over 60 percent of the food for waterfowl during the winter season in the Sacramento Valley and the fields are used by nearly 230 wildlife species throughout the year. Central to the rice growers’ ability to continue this incredible habitat story is for them to be able to access and afford water for winter flooding of their rice fields.
With over 90 percent of the Valley’s original wetlands gone, these “surrogate wetlands” provided by California rice growers are now the major underpinning of the Pacific Flyway. The birds have adapted to this critical habitat that now provides food to support about two million ducks each year, plus hundreds of thousands of shorebirds, wading birds, and raptors. These winter-flooded fields provide nearly $3 billion in habitat value for these birds. Yet it is dependent upon each grower being able to continue buying winter water. With increasing costs and demand for water supplies, the future of this critical habitat is vulnerable. This new law will help to provide much needed “security” for this important Pacific Flyway habitat.
We thank Assembly Member Aguiar-Curry for her leadership in carrying this Legislation to the finish line, as well as her efforts to secure initial funding to get the program started.