California is going through what could be the worst drought in its history, and it's bad enough that Gov. Jerry Brown declared it an emergency—though the announcement wasn’t news to farmers, who have been coping with dry skies for years.
Now a Drought Operations Plan released by the state Department of Water Resources and U.S. Bureau of Reclamation is garnering criticism from nature conservationists, who say it’s forgetting a hidden calamity of the water shortage: the 8 million migratory birds that rely on the rapidly disappearing wetlands of California's Central Valley for survival.
To meet the needs of farmers and birds in one fell swoop, environmental charity group The Nature Conservancy has launched an intrepid project called “Pop-up Habitats.”
The project combines crowdsourced data and economics to figure out step by step where and when birds will need to land and whether water might be available to them, and then pays farmers competitive prices to flood their fields precisely at the time of the birds' descent. If it works, it will be a win-win. Farmers whose livelihoods have been affected by drought will benefit from improved soil fertility and the financial incentive. Birds that have a scarce amount of habitat to choose from, as more than 90 percent of their wetlands have been turned into farms, would have a place to land in their seasonal journeys.
The project uses data collected through Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s database to figure out where the biggest populations of birds will be and when, and pinpoints water availability by collaborating with California-based conservancy group Point Blue Conservation.
It has had some initial success working with the California Rice Commission by launching a market-based system in which 40 bids were received from farmers, who helped create 10,000 acres of pop-up habitat by flooding their fields.
The organization is predicting that up to a quarter of shorebirds will use the habitats that result from the initial phase, coming as far away as the high Arctic to spend winter in California.
The Nature Conservancy scientist Mark Reynolds recently told KQED that California is vital to the millions of birds that come by for a pit stop and continue hundreds of miles beyond its dry fields.
“It’s like stopping on a road trip, so anywhere that they can find habitat and find things to eat to put on fat for their journey, they’ll stop,” he said.
In addition to finding solutions for California’s drought woes, The Nature Conservancy scored a victory farther east this week, preserving thousands of acres of land along the Cheat River in West Virginia, home to unusual plants and animals, such as the rare, flat-spired three-toothed snail.