California Rice Land Does Double Duty

To replenish shrinking wetlands, a collaborative state program floods agricultural fields when fallow in winter

CUTTING across 900 acres of California farmland in his Ford pickup truck, Allen Garcia points to the right of the road where fences surround sun-scorched grass as far as the eye can see.

But to the left of the same road, gnarled oaks, poplar, willow, cottonwoods, and rich shrubs provide perches for egrets, herons, and ducks. They shade tall grasses where beavers and deer lurk, darting in and out of trickling streams and freshets.

Like the host of a television game show where contestants are asked to name the magic ingredient responsible for such a stark contrast, Mr. Garcia pauses and then holds up a visual giveaway - a bag of ordinary rice. Suitable soil

For 20 years, Garcia has been flooding this impervious, hardpan soil to grow rice - an ideal use of the land because the surface irrigation does not percolate into the ground as elsewhere, and the heavy clay soils are suitable for few other crops.

What comes with the rice - wetlands habitat - is what has conservationists, environmentalists, farmers, and legislators excited about a California program that could help reverse the 90 percent drop in wetlands statewide. Since 1967, the state has paved over more farmland than the area of New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and New Jersey combined. With the wetlands have gone wildlife, from 5 million migratory ducks to 1 million, to use just one measure.

Following Garcia's lead, the Nature Conservancy of California, Ducks Unlimited, the California Rice Industry Association, and the California Waterfowl Association are funding a $215,000 program to flood rice fields in winter months when they usually lie fallow. Boon to waterfowl

At the end of winter, the water is drained back into the state's river systems, with a net loss of only evaporation. The idea provides generous new storage for the state's overloaded dam and reservoir systems and a way to rot the post-harvest stubble that is usually burned off, with undesirable pollution effects.

But most important, it could provide hundreds of thousands of acres of winter habitat in the Sacramento Valley, which overwinters 20 percent of all ducks counted in the United States, and 50 percent of all midwinter waterfowl in the Pacific Flyway, a migratory route for birds from Russia, Alaska, and Canada.

"The environmental benefits of this new program for waterfowl, ducks, geese, birds, and the rest is potentially spectacular," says Marc Reisner, an expert on water issues and author of "Cadillac Desert" (Penguin). Hired by the Nature Conservancy to help coordinate rice farmers, environmental groups, and conservationists, Mr. Reisner says this marriage of often combatant groups could set a major precedent for public-private partnerships.

"It's a gutsy experiment," says Reisner. "You usually don't see this kind of collaboration in something of this magnitude." Farmers' concerns

Called the "Ricelands to Wetlands Project," the program is set to flood 5,000 acres of rice land this fall for the winter months. Though environmentalists are sure that the environmental benefits are unquestioned, rice farmers are concerned about the long-term effects on rice yields by possible changes in aerated soil.

Fishery personnel are concerned about the effect on salmon and other fish when the water is diverted from rivers.

Using scientific data from the first season, organizers hope to increase the winter-flooded acreage each year up to 100,000 to 450,000 acres. Besides aiding the environment and providing water storage, the program is expected to benefit rice farmers as well.

Rice farmers have been sharply criticized by the press for using too much water since drought conditions began here six years ago. Many rice farmers have also been put out of work by the drought. Though 600,000 acres of land in the Sacramento Valley are devoted to rice production, only 300,000 were planted in 1991 because of low water supplies. Environmental enhancement

Garcia says the experiment could expand "wholistic" or "multiple use" concepts of sustainable agriculture across California. That means finding ways to increase the environmental value of agricultural land rather than depleting it over time. It also means trying to consider the needs of all concerned in water use - from farmers to fisheries to cities.

"Without rooting our society in sustainable use of our earthly resources, we are not going to have a sustainable society," Garcia says. Garcia has been testifying at recent state hearings that will decide the future allotments of water statewide. "I've been able to tell them this is one of the few consensus-making, problem-solving solutions around," he says.

"[The Ricelands to Wetlands project] is clearly a win-win situation," adds Mary Ann Warmerdam, director of natural resources for the California Farm Bureau Federation in Sacramento. After six years of drought, California authorities have been more concerned than usual about how to meet water- resource goals by acquiring private land for use as wetlands habitat.

"When the state takes lands to meet its goals, it not only has to maintain that land at its own expense, but it deprives itself of property tax at the same time," she says. "Public-private ventures like this maintain economic goals while meeting the need for wetlands, reserves, endangered species habitats, and timberland." Water demand rises

Water storage is a secondary but important component. The state's population has been growing at the rate of about a million per year, adding annual needs of about 1 million acre feet of water. Yet no additional water storage capacity has been acquired since the 1960s.

Flooding more acres of rice land each winter will increase state storage capacity, and existing reservoirs can be kept at levels that maintain the colder water fish need to spawn. Another benefit of winter flooding is biodegradation of rice stubble. Legislation in recent years has cracked down heavily on the traditional method of burning, which has created significant air pollution problems. Shallow flooding in early fall significantly rots the stubble and puts the nutrients back in the soil.

Harvey Carlson, project director for the Nature Conservancy of California, says many pieces need to come together in order for the Ricelands to Wetlands Project to prosper: securing water rights during fall and winter months; ensuring pumping schedules during months when many irrigation districts shut down for maintenance; and research on the effects of this program on dryland species such as snakes and rodents.

"We will be taking baby steps at first to make sure we are not wreaking havoc inadvertently on something else," he says, adding that rice fields are not the same as natural habitat although they are the equivalent for migratory birds.

"The kick of this idea is that we are getting 95 percent of a natural habitat at a fraction of the cost without sapping local communities of their livelihood," he says.

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