Snow geese

Snow geese fly over the Sacramento River National Wildlife Refuge in Willows in October. Photo courtesy Nina Riggio for CalMatters

It says something about the complexity of California’s water crisis that there are so many actors in the state’s water wars, all clamoring for more. Nature, alone, is silent in this fight, relying on others to speak on behalf of the welfare of wildlife and waterways.

Across the state, biologists, farmers and hunters are lending nature a helping hand. It’s sometimes an extreme intervention: trucking young salmon when drought shrinks rivers.

But this year these lifelines aren’t enough. Migratory birds — protected by state and national laws and an international treaty — are suffering mightily during this drought, even more so than they did during the last major dry spell, which lasted five years and ended in early 2017.

California is the most critical link in the 4,000-mile-long Pacific Flyway, a route along the West Coast where millions of birds shuttle between their summer and winter homes. It’s an arduous journey, hopscotching from wetlands and waterways, allowing birds to rest and refuel, shoring up strength for their trip.

Wildlife experts say this year’s severe drought has uncoupled that connectivity. Normal routes — long imprinted in migrating birds’ navigation systems — have gone haywire.

The great dryness has eliminated many of the flyway’s rest stops in California — particularly in the far north Klamath region — forcing ducks, geese, eagles, herons and other traveling birds to stay aloft and keep looking. Biologists in Northern California and Oregon say they are tracking flocks deviating far off established flight paths, seeking water where there is little.

Experts say evidence is already emerging a year into this drought that their labored journey is weakening and stressing birds that struggle to find wetlands along their journey to rest and feed.

This year is the driest on record in the Lower Klamath Basin, a lush region of marshes and streams that straddles the Oregon-California border. The refuges there are “almost completely dry,” said U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service spokesperson Susan Sawyer.

As a result, nearly all of the ducks have vanished. A recent aerial survey of the vast refuge showed about 34,000 ducks this year compared to 1.5 million in 1948; nearby Tule Lake refuge had only about 30,000 ducks in the survey, down from 3.5 million.

In the span of a few human generations, even in years of plentiful rain, 90 percent of California’s wetlands have disappeared to development and agriculture, so migrating birds are especially vulnerable to prolonged droughts.

“The journey, from the human perspective, is enormous,” said Andrew Farnsworth, who researches bird migration at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. “It requires a lot of energy. Some start in Alaska. Flights of 4,000 miles are absolutely quite common, and they will fly nonstop for a few days. Having the resources they need is critically important.”

Melanie Weaver, waterfowl coordinator for the state Department of Fish and Wildlife, has confidence in the ability of migrating birds to adapt, saying “ducks and geese are wired to go through drought. They don’t fall out of the sky. They have wings, they move where food and water is.”

But the widespread nature of this drought throughout the West, and its severity and potential duration, may challenge even the most resilient wildlife.

“I’m concerned that we are not going to see the populations come back,” Weaver said. “This drought is bad. The odds are against us.”

Even recent winter storms — which dumped rain across the north and central parts of the state and swelled some rivers and streams — made no dent to ease California’s drought, wetlands loss or water shortage.

To make the state more hospitable to migrating birds during the drought, state and federal programs are paying farmers to keep water on their fields. The state Department of Water Resources invested $8 million this fall. In the northern end of the Central Valley, agricultural land is flooded and managed as migratory bird habitat for exhausted annual travelers flapping in from as far away as Alaska and Russia.

But the amount of water from rivers and lakes allocated for wildlife refuges has been cut back substantially this year. The Lower Klamath Refuge has been operating with half its water allocations from rivers and streams since 2006, but this year has been devastating: It received less than 1 percent of its allocations.

With the loss of more than 99 percent of its wetlands, few chicks were born in the refuge this year. Most birds didn’t bother stopping there to nest, moving instead to the Sacramento area, which received 75 percent of their usual water allocation.

What drought does is render the already precarious existence for wildlife all the more dicey.

When normal weather patterns are off kilter, even in a small way, the impact on birds and their environment can be profound.

Birds can die during extreme heat events that sometimes accompany drought. That happened this spring and summer, with young barn owls dying of heat stress when sheltering in nesting boxes that people built in their yards in Contra Costa, Humboldt, Marin, San Diego, Stanislaus, Yolo and Los Angeles counties.

Water quality problems can occur when well-meaning people maintain backyard bird baths with stagnant, non-circulating water that speeds the spread of parasites. Disease can be spread when raptors or other animals prey on sick birds.

“Streams and creeks are not running like they typically would,” Rogers said. “Birds and other animals rely more heavily on artificial sources of water and food. I expect to see disease outbreaks at bird feeders and artificial sources of water such as bird baths and fountains.”

State wildlife officials can’t say with assurance that populations of migratory birds have declined; nearly two years of COVID-19 has grounded bird survey flights and this year’s winter migration has months to go.

But they have the last drought to go by, and that suggests migrating birds are in for trouble.

Scientists expect current data to mirror the declines during the height of the last drought. California’s population of breeding ducks in 2015 fell 30 percent compared to 2014, according to a U.S. Department of Fish and Wildlife survey.

“That didn’t surprise us,” said Weaver, of the state wildlife agency, who also sits on the Pacific Flyway Council. “Why breed when your habitat isn’t there? r

This is an edited version of a story that first appeared at CalMatters.org, a nonpartisan, nonprofit news site focused on statewide policy. We think Julie Cart’s unedited version, available online, is well worth your time.

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