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.


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Anita Ritenour-cc

Sandhill cranes.

Still, the local breeding populations of birds have been heavily impacted by the drought. This winter and spring, for example, there was not enough water in the marshes. The mallard chicks that hatched in the spring found an inhospitable environment.

“By the time they hatched, there was no water for the ducklings,” he said. “It didn’t take long for those broods to just fail.”


Unlike farms, wetlands don’t have powerful political interests backing them, so obtaining water in California’s increasingly crowded economy has been an upstream battle. Hertel said Audubon California is one of several organizations that have tried in vain for years to get the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation to fulfill its obligations and provide all the water mandated by law for fish and wildlife.

The groups Defenders of Wildlife, The Nature Conservancy, Ducks Unlimited, and the California Waterfowl Association also have all helped keep a vigilant watch over the Bureau of Reclamation to make sure the wildlife refuges are not allowed to go dry in favor of influential farming regions, according to Hertel. “The problem is, if we don’t advocate for this, the refuges do not receive the water they’re supposed to receive,” she said. “Even with us working on it, they don’t get that water.”

The wetlands face other threats, too. Invasive plants can crowd out important food grasses—like protein-rich swamp timothy—that birds depend on. And California’s high-speed rail project, which will link the Bay Area and Los Angeles at almost-airplane speeds, is going to cut straight through the Grasslands.

However, water remains the most persistent problem affecting the Central Valley’s wetlands. The trouble is, farmers need water, too. So do cities. So do salmon and other fish—a demand that has prompted pumping restrictions in the delta. There’s simply not enough water available to meet the demands of all these interests.

According to Bureau of Reclamation records, the Central Valley’s 19 wetlands received about 385,000 acre-feet of water per year from 2008 to 2012. But they should have gotten substantially more. In 1992, Congress passed a law establishing a baseline amount of water that the refuges must receive every year from the Central Valley Project—the bureau’s water supply system of dams, pumps, and canals. That amount is 422,251 acre-feet and is referred to as “level-2” water. It’s considered to be the minimum amount necessary to keep the 19 wetlands functioning.

The law, known as the Central Valley Project Improvement Act, also called for “incremental level-4” water—an additional block of 133,264 acre-feet each year intended for optimum habitat management. The Bureau of Reclamation is supposed to acquire this water through trades, purchases, or other creative schemes. That would make a total delivery each year of 555,515 acre-feet of water to Central Valley wildlife refuges.

In the grand scheme of the state’s hydrology, that isn’t very much water. Lake Shasta currently contains more than 4 million acre-feet of water. And the state’s thirsty almond orchards guzzle about 3 million acre-feet each year, while—according to the environmental think tank Pacific Institute—the production of livestock in the state consumes about 20 million acre-feet annually. All told, the amount of water that should be going to wetlands equals about 1 percent of the 50 million acre-feet used each year in California.

A 2013 report by the bureau stated flatly, “Reclamation is required to provide full Level 2 water supplies annually.” But according to the bureau’s records, it has never once in the past 24 years delivered the baseline level-2 amount to the wildlife refuges, let alone the full allotment of water that Congress mandated in 1992.

That’s partly because four of the 19 wildlife refuges lack the necessary conveyance connections—adequately sized canals, ditches, and pumps—needed to transport water. These refuges—Pixley, Sutter, Graylodge, and East Bear Creek—make do with wells and groundwater.

“They’ve had 24 years to construct these facilities, but they haven’t,” Hertel said of the bureau’s water managers. Consequently, each year, a portion of the level-2 water—between 30,000 and 40,000 acre-feet—never reaches the four refuges. Instead, the bureau funnels the water into the Central Valley Project’s core supply pool, according to bureau spokesperson Shane Hunt. And then most of the water ultimately winds up on farms.

Hunt cited a lack of funds as a chief reason why the bureau hasn’t constructed the needed conveyance connections at the four refuges.

In addition, farm groups and politicians aligned with them have tried to further slash the amount of water going to wildlife refuges. In the early years of the drought, in fact, U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-California—historically an ally of the state’s powerful agriculture interests—introduced draft legislation that would have cut refuge water supplies to zero. The legislation, which was eventually modified to the benefit of birds and wildlife, would have left refuges dependent on low-quality groundwater and might have been a death sentence for the Central Valley’s wetlands.


During the past two decades, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation has created the impression that it has delivered the legally mandated allotments of water to California’s wetlands, when, in fact, it has failed to do so. It’s a deception that has been longstanding source of contention between the agency and refuge managers and environmental watchdogs.

“We’ve brought this up … so many times at meetings: that everyone assumes they’re meeting their full potential obligation to these refuges when they aren’t,” Hertel said of the bureau’s water managers. “It’s a constant source of frustration, especially in a time of drought when there are places that are getting cut back significantly, because then they look at wildlife refuges and assume they’re high on the hog and drowning in water.”

The bureau’s water accounting system is exceptionally misleading. A chart released on March 31 shows how much water the bureau has allocated from the Central Valley Project to farms, cities, and refuges in the Central Valley for 2016. The document reports that refuges have been allocated 100 percent of their contracted level-2 water—even though the refuges will, in all likelihood, not receive that full amount. After all, they never have before—except in 1995, when heavy winter rains flooded the Central Valley’s waterways with all the water they could handle. “The bureau counts it as delivering full level-4,” Hertel said of 1995. “But frankly, Mother Nature dumped it on the refuges. They didn’t deliver it.”

David Mooney, the Bureau of Reclamation’s program management branch chief, said the agency’s reporting system isn’t exactly false. It reports allocated water, without specifying how much water actually gets delivered. The same chart, he noted, shows farmers being allocated 100 percent of their contracted water, even though they aren’t necessarily going to use every last bit of it either.

But farmers who are allocated water can choose whether to pump all of it from the state’s rivers or not. The four wildlife refuges unconnected to the Central Valley Project don’t have that option, because the water cannot physically reach them.

To say the water has been allocated to wetland areas, when it’s not actually delivered, is disingenuous to people like Ortega. He said he has asked Bureau of Reclamation officials to simply reallocate the undelivered portion to the other 15 refuges—including his—that have the necessary conveyance connections. That would help these refuges partly meet their incremental level-4 water needs.

In email responses to questions posed for this report, bureau officials offered a variety of reasons for why making such transfers are administratively too difficult—even though water transfers between farmers are routine on the state’s water market.

“If they had the political will, they would make those,” Ortega said of the transfers. “That’s the refuge block of water—our water supply.”


East Bay resident R.J. Waldron has been hunting for 20 of his 40 years. He runs the Northwind Outfitters hunting and fishing guide service, and in autumn, he takes clients waterfowl hunting in San Francisco Bay, the delta region, and the Sacramento Valley. He guided clients every day last fall, except for major holidays, and he personally harvested 50 ducks and geese.

Like many recreational hunters, Waldron, who lives in Concord, also considers himself a conservationist. “It’s really important that people, especially from places like San Francisco, where they don’t do a lot of hunting and fishing, get out and see these places,” he said of the delta wetlands.

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