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Along The Pacific Flyway, California's Drought Raises Concerns For Wildlife

The area around Los Banos isn't just a stopover for valley travelers along Highway 152 who are headed for the Central Coast. It's also a vital rest stop for millions of birds from across North America on the Pacific Flyway.

Ric Ortega: "If you come out here, you really don't see it all off of any of the major highways. But here we have something that definitely at least from an ecological perspective is equivalent to Yosemite Valley."

That's Ric Ortega, the General Manager of the Grasslands Water District in Los Banos. His agency is charged with distributing water for a massive collection of state and federal wildlife reserves and privately owned duck hunting clubs. Together, they cover over 200,000 acres from around Dos Palos to Gustine.

Ortega: "That's equivalent of about the size of New York City, about 300 square miles, so this is the largest contiguous wetland in the western United States."

The Grasslands Ecological Area is a vital habitat for millions of shorebirds, waterfowl and other species. According to officials with the San Luis Wildlife Refuge, of the 5 to 6 million birds that migrate over the Pacific Flyway, over half spend their winters in the valley, with over 1 million in the Grasslands alone. 

What brings all those birds to Central California? Water. And in this year of severe drought, that's what has everyone from biologists to duck hunters concerned: a possible devastating year for migratory birds and other species. 

Ortega: "Across the board there's going to be some severe impacts. We're working with resource managers throughout the state, to make sure that we're staging adequate water, or just maximizing our footprint to minimize another ecological disaster."

While final water allocations have yet to be announced, Ortega says the district expects to receive about 30 percent of its normal supply from the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. That's more than some valley farmers can expect to receive, but it won't be enough to keep many of these birds alive and healthy. 

But as Ortega and I go for a hike on the state run Los Banos Wildlife Area, right now, things look surprisingly normal Just beyond the tall reeds lies a shallow lake filled with hundreds of birds from Mallards to majestic Sand Hill Cranes. And on this rare clear day, you can see the snow capped peaks of Sierra Nevada off in the distance as several white egrets fly by.

Ortega: "The water that we see here is remnants of last year's water. The birds we're seeing here are Mallards and Gadwall. These are our local breeding birds at this point, so you'll see quite a few of them are paired up."

The real concern here is what will happen later in 2014 and early next year. Normally these ponds would be irrigated in the summer to help native grasses grow and provide seed for birds and habitat for their other favorite food - insects. Then in the fall, the land would be flooded, just in time for birds migrating south from Canada. 

But this year, with only 50,000 acre feet of water spread over a massive area, the consequences for wildlife could be huge.

Ortega: "The reality is these birds are going to arrive in droves. And so there will be immense overcrowding. We'll exhaust our food base very quickly so these birds will be of poor body condition, they'll be emaciated. And the overcrowding is the precursor to disease outbreaks like cholera and botulism. So we could see massive die offs in a year like this."

While the ultimate scope of the problem is still uncertain, officials are looking to past droughts and die offs for clues. Steve Brueggemann, an environmental scientist with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife's Mendota Wildlife Area says to make matters worse, this year may have an especially large population of birds from Canada. 

Brueggemann: "The prairie regions  and other regions to the north  have been getting plenty of water, they're going to have good  habitat to produce birds. So you may have a lot of birds come south to our areas and not find a lot of wetlands. So it will concentrate those birds, and then the possibility of having some disease like cholera increases."

He says the situation this year is simply unprecedented.  

Brueggemann: "We've never had a cutback like this since I've been here, and I've been here since the mid-1980s"

And birds aren't the only concern. With little possibility of maintaining year round water at the Volta Wildlife Refuge, Ortega says there's a very real concern that some endangered species could be at risk of survival. 

Ortega: "We also have the only reproductive population south of the delta of the Giant Garter Snake, which we're very concerned we may lose this summer." 

Of course droughts are nothing new in the Golden State, and some research suggests that California's historical climate might be more like this year, than what we've known for the last century. But urban and agricultural development has claimed around 95 percent of the valley's former wetlands, including the ancient Tulare Lake. And that's why these public and private wetlands play a critical role in the ecosystem of not just the valley, but all of western North America. 

Ortega: "These aren't our birds. They're the United States' and Canada's, and Mexico's. They move through us and are dependent on all of the habitat."

Water managers hope to have a better idea of their allocations later this month. 

Joe Moore is the President and General Manager of KVPR / Valley Public Radio. He has led the station through major programming changes, the launch of KVPR Classical and the COVID-19 pandemic. Under his leadership the station was named California Non-Profit of the Year by Senator Melissa Hurtado (2019), and won a National Edward R. Murrow Award for investigative reporting (2022).
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