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Central Valley Wildlife Refuges Are Short of Water

Meghan Hertel, Audubon California’s Working Lands director, writes that often-vilified Central Valley wildlife refuges are still not getting their full federal water allocations.

Written by Meghan Hertel Published on Read time Approx. 3 minutes
The sun sets over a man-made wetland at the San Luis National Wildlife Refuge near Gustine, California.Marcio Jose Sanchez, Associated Press

Reading the news earlier this month that Central Valley wildlife refuges were going to receive 100 percent of their federal water allocations would normally have made us thrilled for the Pacific Flyway birds that depend on wetland habitat. And we weren’t surprised to see this news greeted with outrage by those who have been suffering from the drought along with the birds for the past three years.

But we weren’t thrilled because we knew that the news wasn’t true. Refuges will not be getting anything close to the water they are owed this year and, in fact, have never received their full congressionally mandated and biologically necessary water supply.

The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s water allocations for this year included a 100 percent allocation of Level 2 water supplies to wildlife refuges. Level 2 is defined as the average water that refuges received until 1992 from the Central Valley Project, which is not the amount they need to manage fully for a complete range of the birds and wildlife they support.

This equates to only 65 percent of the total water that is owed wildlife refuges pursuant to the Central Valley Project Improvement Act (CVPIA), which was enacted in 1992 and promises both full Level 2 and Level 4 water deliveries. Level 4 water supplies are defined as what the refuges require to meet their ecological needs.

Waterfowl at the Kern National Wildlife Refuge in Delano, California. (Damian Dovarganes, Associated Press)

Waterfowl at the Kern National Wildlife Refuge in Delano, California. (Damian Dovarganes, Associated Press)

In addition, nearly one-quarter of CVPIA wildlife refuges (five out of 19) can’t even receive the surface waters they are allocated, due to delays in construction of water-conveyance facilities. These construction projects were federally mandated to be completed 24 years ago by the Bureau of Reclamation and the State of California, yet they still remain unbuilt, further hampering the capacity of these refuges to support wildlife or receive any of the reduced Level 2 water allocation announced by the Bureau.

This year’s reduced deliveries to wildlife refuges follows two years of the lowest water deliveries on record where, on average, refuges received only 44 percent of their water supplies, resulting in:

  • Extremely limited spring and summer habitat – critical for a wide range of birds such as the mallard, which has seen a 42 percent decrease in breeding populations in the last two years, most likely due to a lack of spring habitat. This kind of habitat is also vital for preservation of state and federally listed species such as the giant garter snake and tricolored blackbird.
  • Limited capacity of these refuges to grow food for the millions of birds that rely on the Central Valley as part of the Pacific Flyway, leading to overcrowding, potential disease outbreaks and reduced overall species health.
  • Actual habitat conversion in some places from wetland habitat to upland habitat, which will now require restoration work if the managers are to use that ground again for wetlands.

​With less than 10 percent of historic wetlands and riparian habitat left in California, these wildlife refuges are the backbone of natural habitat that is left to support millions of migratory birds and resident wildlife. Despite their importance to California’s environment and the small amount of water these refuges are mandated to receive through the CVPIA (just a little more than 1 percent of total water used in California), these areas have never received their full water allocations or deliveries, yet are frequently the first to be blamed for taking more than than their fair share.

Inaccurate statements that wildlife refuges are receiving their full water deliveries or are favored or prioritized by the Bureau of Reclamation distorts the public dialogue about how we should meet the challenges of the ongoing drought. The drought has been challenging for all areas of our state – our communities, farms and businesses – and the environment is no exception. It is important that we understand that all areas have seen water cutbacks with impacts on people, businesses and wildlife. For wildlife refuges, the reduced water deliveries will continue again this year and every year until the Bureau of Reclamation is able fully to deliver the mandated Level 4 that was promised under the CVPIA.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Water Deeply.

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