What this fourth year of drought means for Sacramento Valley Rice Farmers and the Environment

By Tim Johnson

You would have to go back to the last big drought of 1991 to find a year when less rice will be planted in California. With an estimated 375,000 acres of rice based on seed sales this year, it will be the fewest acres planted in nearly a quarter century.

Last year we saw water cutbacks of 25 percent. This year cuts were deeper. Several water districts in the valley received no water, relying instead on neighbors and an underground aquifer still in good shape.

For those that wonder if rice farmers are doing their part during the drought, they are. If our early estimates of crop size hold, this will mean nearly one third of our fields will be bare. No rice growing. No jobs. No nesting shorebirds or wintering ducks.

In our rural communities, the impacts will also be real. Farmers can’t hire as many employees and rice mills are cutting back shifts up to 50 percent. Supporting business such as trucking and equipment sales suffer similarly.

Recently, Chico State reported that one in six jobs in the upper Sacramento Valley comes from agriculture. UC Davis puts this year’s losses statewide at $2.7 billion and 18,000 jobs.

If these levels of economic loss were in Washington State and this were Boeing, it would be the top on the evening news and all over social media. I can promise you that in the small towns where agriculture is the economic driver for the community, it feels just like that.

The silent losers are the birds. Fewer rice acres mean the black-necked stilts nesting in our fields today have few opportunities to pile up old rice straw into a mound right in the middle of our field and raise their young.

In the fall, less rice means fewer places for the waves of ducks and geese from the north to stop and rest for the winter. Rice provides 60 percent of the food these birds rely on each winter.

Yet in this drought there are a few bright spots. Our farmers and water managers continue to take on projects that benefit the environment. There is the project at Knights Landing where the water district is investing its own dollars to improve salmon habitat on the Sacramento River.

California ricelands were recently the recipient of a significant grant, that when matched with industry dollars and private contributions, provides enhanced habitat on working rice fields. Habitat for nesting shorebirds, winter flooding for waterfowl and the potential for nesting areas for upland species are all happening as a result.

Yes the drought is real and it is having a profound effect on the Sacramento Valley. Through it all, however, we are still doing much for the resources that underpin our farms and the future– our land and our water.

Tim Johnson, CRC President & CEO