Dying of Thirst

For two decades, the U.S. government has failed to deliver enough water to California wildlife refuges, and migratory birds have suffered mightily as a result.


It’s Ric Ortega’s job to make sure the 200,000-acre Grasslands stays in good health.

Photo by Alastair Bland

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Two herons—one chalky blue, the other snowy white—lift from the reeds beside a gravel road running along the levee. On the other side, a lone mallard lands with a skid on the surface of the Santa Fe Canal, which is filled with water pumped from the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta.

As Ric Ortega steers his white pickup along these marshy wetlands southeast of Mount Hamilton, he says the patchwork of canals, tule clusters, and grassy bogs comes alive with clouds of birds in the fall, when ducks and geese are migrating south from Canada. “It gets crazy here—flocks of tens of thousands of birds,” he says. “All the songbirds, raptors, falcons, eagles—you name a bird, it comes here.”

“Here” is the Grassland Ecological Area, the largest wetlands area in the western United States. Informally referred to as “the Grasslands” and including within its boundaries both the Grassland Water District and the Grassland Resource Conservation District, this marshy sprawl is a critical touchdown point for millions of birds during their long migrations between Mexico and Canada.

In the Grasslands, a little bit of water goes a long way. It spreads just inches deep over thousands of acres of the undeveloped valley floor, creating a fertile pond of plant and invertebrate life, which, in turn, supports teeming flocks of migratory waterfowl.

Ortega is the manager of the Grassland Water District and Resource Conservation District, and it’s his job to help make sure that this 200,000-acre wildlife refuge stays in good health. The birds here require open space and some degree of peace and quiet, and most of them need vegetation to eat. However, in this blazing hot patch of the San Joaquin Valley, there may be nothing more important than water.

And the Grasslands are getting stiffed. So are more than a dozen other wildlife refuges throughout the Sacramento and San Joaquin valleys. For the past 20-plus years, the federal government has failed to supply the full amount of water to these unique lowland wildernesses as required by law, and in places, the number of birds has dropped steadily. Critics also allege that the federal government’s public water accounting system, which provides information on water deliveries to farms, cities, and refuges, is deceptive and frequently misleads the news media into falsely reporting that California’s wetlands are receiving 100-percent allocations. “This year, I’m getting 135,000 of the 180,000 acre-feet I’m supposed to receive, but the way they report the water deliveries, I’m somehow getting 100 percent,” Ortega says.

The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, the federal agency responsible for most of California’s water supply, has shortchanged the state’s wetlands areas by hundreds of thousands of acre-feet of water per year since the early 1990s. Much of that water, handled by the pumps and canals of the Central Valley Project, has instead been delivered to the state’s powerful agribusiness industry.

Wetlands watchdog groups, or the federal government, could buy the water needed for the marshes, but it would mean outbidding wealthy farming operations. Thus, while the amount of acreage dedicated to fruit and nut orchards expands in California, the Central Valley’s wetlands struggle to get their water.

And migratory birds have suffered mightily as a result.


Prior to California statehood and the far-reaching development that came with it, tens of millions of birds soared over the Central Valley each year. They stopped to rest, eat, and nest on some 2 million acres of wetlands, which were fed by swollen rivers and seasonal rainfall.

But levees and other flood-control measures built in the 19th and 20th centuries altered the landscape, converting nearly all the floodplains into farmland, while eliminating the annual flooding cycles that the wetlands depended on. Today, federal water managers keep the fragmented remnants artificially alive with irrigation systems, much the way farmland is managed in the state. Currently, there are 19 protected wetlands areas, stretching from the northern Sacramento Valley south to Kern County in the San Joaquin Valley.

“A lot of people think wetlands have their own water—that they’re connected to a river so that they just get water on their own,” said Meghan Hertel, working lands director of the bird conservation group Audubon California. “But they don’t. They’re reliant on delivered water.”

Most of the refuges are federally run, and a few are state-owned. But one—the Grasslands—is a giant consortium of privately owned fields that is managed and funded largely by bird hunters.

All together, these wetlands provide stopover habitat for some 2 million ducks and geese—about a fifth of the migratory waterfowl that fly over the Central Valley each year. In the Sacramento Valley, which runs from the northern Delta up to Redding, rice paddies play an equally important role in supporting migratory birds.

The wetlands are disproportionately valuable: They amount to just 5 percent to 10 percent of the historic acreage yet support between 25 percent to 50 percent of the historic bird numbers.

Some 260 bird species use the Grasslands region, along with many other forms of wildlife. One small pond under Ortega’s watch is kept filled all year to maintain the endangered giant garter snake, of which there are just a few dozen left.

Having water available in all seasons is critical. “What we do is we try to mimic the natural hydro cycle,” Ortega said.

In late summer and fall, small wooden gates placed across levee openings lift up, allowing water to flow from local supply canals into the wetland marshes. This mimics natural snowmelt flooding and provides habitat and food—both vegetation and insects—for the migratory birds that arrive in the autumn. The marshes remain inundated until spring, and after the birds depart and fly northward, land managers drain the marshes again. The water rushes back into the San Joaquin River system as the soggy land bursts to life under the warm valley sun. Grasses and reeds emerge from the soil. Sometimes, another shot of water is applied to the land to encourage plant growth. The grasses flower and, in the summer, go to seed, providing food for resident birds that congregate through the dry season in scattered ponds of year-round water. In August, land managers flood the marshes again, completing the cycle as the masses of waterfowl return.

That’s how things are supposed to work, anyway, but during the drought, wetlands management hasn’t always gone so smoothly.

Ortega said that in the fall of 2014—a year when federal water managers cut the baseline allocations to south-of-delta wildlife refuges to 75 percent—large numbers of ducks arrived in the Central Valley. That’s because the California drought coincided with an especially wet, productive time in the Canadian tundra and taiga forest.

“So, we had record numbers of birds born up north returning to a record-dry marsh,” he said. The birds, fighting for space and food, faced a mass die-off.

Then it rained in a weeklong drenching of near-record downpours. “Mother Nature came through and delivered,” Ortega said.

Thousands of birds starved to death that year, but Ortega said hundreds of thousands more would have surely perished were it not for that week of heavy rain. “We really dodged a bullet,” he said.

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