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Birds Die So Smelt Can Live!

"The amount of water available from the estuary has declined in recent years because of protections for fish."

Oct 01, 2014

"The rest of Grasslands’ supply comes from the federal Central Valley Project and the Delta, but the amount of water available from the estuary has declined in recent years because of protections for fish." - Stockton Record

The above statement comes from a Stockton Record article explaining why migratory birds are dying in California. The water that is flushed through the Delta to protect the smelt is the same water migratory birds need in the estuaries south of the Delta if the pumps were allowed to pump.

We introduced this topic in an August newsletter titled "Turn on the Pumps to Save the Smelt" where retired U.S. government research scientist Mary Winfree says the pumps support an entire ecosystem that no one thinks about, "
No one ever looked to see where the water was going. They just looked at shutting the pumps off. They didn't look at the four hundred miles that the water travels. The water also goes not just the farmers and homes and factories, but to wetlands, bird refuges and lakes. It goes right under the Pacific flyway, which is the largest migratory route for birds going back and forth between Alaska and South America, and these birds use this water. When they turn the water off, it kills frogs and this is one of the first things I actually noticed back over towards LeMoore. The farmers were pumping water into holding ponds and then moving that into their fields, but the holding ponds had reed beds and I went in and looked at one of them, and saw that it had dried up to the point that the mud had cracked and embedded in the mud were little legged tadpoles that had tried to escape the drying by burrowing into the mud. They look like raisins pressed in there and they were all dead. This meant that turning the water off had hit the amphibian population for four hundred miles. We looked at waterbirds as well at the bird refuge and found that it seemed to be impacting the brown pelican, the sand hill cranes, the osprey eagles and the little marsh wrens. All of these are endangered species, protected by the same law that protects the smelt. If we really wanted to follow the law as it's written, we would turn the water back on for them."

There's no end to the law of unintended consequences.

Migrating birds in for a tough winter in Central Valley

Alex Breitler/Stockton Record

If the millions of birds that migrate to the Central Valley each winter look forward to the equivalent of a cozy bed and a warm meal, this year they could find themselves sleeping under a bridge.

That’s a crude analogy, but experts agree that those waterfowl — winging their way to drought-stricken California as we speak — will find their favorite wetlands shrunken and depleted and will be forced to crowd into smaller pools where they may suffer from high levels of hunger and disease.

The awful irony is that this was a banner breeding year in Canada and the Dakotas. So California must somehow accommodate more waterfowl than normal this winter, despite having significantly less water.

“It’s kind of a dire situation,” said Mark Biddlecomb, with the conservation group Ducks Unlimited.

Even San Joaquin County's iconic sandhill cranes, which can adapt to drought more easily than other birds, may find themselves searching far and wide for food. Birders last year reported that cranes roosting in the Delta were wandering into areas where they had never been seen before, said David Yee, a prominent Stockton birder.

“We saw cranes moving way east, which is very, very unusual,” Yee said.

Those extended trips force the cranes to burn more energy, at a time of year when they are supposed to be fattening up, he said. That waste of energy could later harm their ability to breed.

One year is not likely to decimate the population, but an extended drought might.

“Will we see something this year in terms of a sudden crash? No,” Yee said. “But there is a cumulative effect. We may see something five, 10, 20 years from now, especially if we have a continuous dry period.”

The situation demonstrates how everyone is pinched in a severe drought — people, fish and fowl.

Even before the drought, waterfowl were already at a major disadvantage, with more than 90 percent of the Central Valley’s historic wetlands having been paved or plowed over the past century.

Only pockets of habitat remain. One of those pockets is the San Luis National Wildlife Refuge Complex, which includes the San Joaquin River refuge south of Stockton. Officials there expect to receive about 65 percent of their normal water supply — a “huge hit” for refuges that are supposed to receive at least 75 percent even in a severe drought, said Kim Forrest, refuge manager.

This summer, the refuge didn’t have enough water to grow the plants that the birds like to feast upon, Forrest said.

Flooding fields to create roosting habitat has also proved difficult, with the parched earth sucking up much of that limited water. Ultimately, only about half of the 10,000 acres of wetlands at San Luis will be flooded this year.

“Our ditches were bone dry,” Forrest said. “There’s people who have worked here 30 years and have never seen that.”

In some places, hunting opportunities will be curtailed or even eliminated this fall. At the Grasslands Water District near Los Banos, a patch of privately hunted wetlands the size of New York City, General Manager Ric Ortega said he fears some hunters will walk away.

Grasslands has flooded about 13,000 acres, compared with 25,000 acres in a normal year, Ortega said.

Typically the district buys some of its water, but prices have soared because of the drought. The rest of Grasslands’ supply comes from the federal Central Valley Project and the Delta, but the amount of water available from the estuary has declined in recent years because of protections for fish.
“Some of our landowners will probably pull out and say it’s not worth it,” Ortega said. “It’s getting worse and worse.”

Signs of disease are not yet evident at Grasslands or at San Luis, but most of the wintering birds have not yet arrived and the wetlands are not yet crowded.

In the Klamath Basin, a pit stop on the way to the Central Valley, thousands of birds died in an outbreak of botulism earlier this summer. State officials have asked property owners throughout California to watch for signs of disease in waterfowl in the coming months.

The poor conditions elsewhere make the Delta even more important, since there is always water there. The Nature Conservancy, which owns Staten Island and operates it as a sandhill crane preserve, will be able to provide water for the cranes. About 200 of them have already shown up, said Dawit Zeleke, who manages the island for the conservancy.

But if ducks and geese displaced from drier areas also converge there, that could spell trouble.

“Then they’re competing with the cranes,” Zeleke said. “That’s our biggest worry.”

California has grappled with serious droughts before, but this time the state has a larger population, and urban development has eliminated more habitat, Yee said.

Despite all the focus on waterfowl, many other species might struggle this year, Yee said. Stockton birders recently have noticed an invasion of acorn woodpeckers in the Valley. Those woodpeckers have apparently been unable to find food at higher elevations and might also have been displaced by drought-induced fires.

Yee wonders if overstressed Valley oaks will produce enough acorns for this sudden influx of birds.

“They’re just not where they’re supposed to be,” he said. “No one can remember ever seeing this.”

Contact reporter Alex Breitler at (209) 546-8295 or abreitler@recordnet.com. Follow him at recordnet.com/breitlerblog and on Twitter @alexbreitler.

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