Organization working to make water supply go farther in California

Eight million birds a year travel along the Pacific Flyway, through the Central Valley in California. But 95 percent of the wetlands the birds depend on are gone, so a lot of large birds now rely on flooded rice fields for a place to rest and eat.

That works well until the end of January, when rice farmers usually drain their fields, leaving no extra habitat for smaller shore birds that need wetlands later, in February and March.

The Nature Conservancy is trying to solve that problem with data from citizen scientists.

Amateur bird watchers post their bird sightings on a website called Ebird, which has millions of entries from all over the United States spanning many years.

Eric Hallstein, an economist with The Nature Conservancy, explained that Conservancy scientists combine the eBird data with research from other sources to predict where and when birds need habitat. The data is used to create a map that indicates where a lot of birds are expected, but where there is not enough wetland available.

Now, the Conservancy can use the information to work with farmers to create more habitat. ABC7 News went up to a farm in Yuba County to see how the program works.

Conservancy Scientist Mark Reynolds is excited about the new technique.

"We've never before had the ability to look week by week at when birds need habitat," Reynolds said.

The Conservancy is paying farmers to keep their fields flooded longer in the areas where the habitat is needed most.

Leaving the fields flooded creates a risk for farmers because it gives them less time to prepare the soil for planting in June. The Nature Conservancy is using what is known as a reverse auction. Farmers place bids, estimating how much it will cost them to keep the fields flooded for several extra weeks.

The Conservancy chooses the farmers with the lowest bids in the most critical areas. In this first year of the program, 42 farmers are participating, creating 10,000 acres of temporary wetlands for birds.

Reynolds was thrilled to see a huge flock of Dunlin, hanging out in a flooded rice field on farmer Doug Thomas' land. Thomas explained that he is not adding any water to his fields, just holding the water he already has. He calls it a win win.

"It's good for us because it sustains us on a financial basis," Thomas said.

And it's a huge help to birds that need wetlands now.

Thomas says the birds "are on a wing and a prayer heading through the valley every year and it's neat to be part of that."

The Conservancy is not revealing how much they are paying farmers because the bidding is competitive. But they say it is a very cost effective and a good method to create temporary habitat. All the money comes from private donations.

Written and produced by Jennifer Olney

Copyright © 2024 KGO-TV. All Rights Reserved.