Farmers, ranchers and environmentalists regularly find themselves on opposing sides of the table when it comes to water discussions. In an ag-heavy state like California, farmers and ranchers are in constant need of water to sustain their crops and animals. Meanwhile, environmental groups are looking to cut consumption in an effort to protect everything from fish to riverbanks and estuaries. And that’s exactly what sets apart the relationship between rice farmers and environmentalists from other agricultural commodities.
Farmers plant nearly 500,000 acres of rice in California each year, mostly in the Sacramento Valley. Many of them flood for eight months at a time, providing rich wetland vegetation and waste grain to birds, bugs and other wildlife.
The scene along Highway 99 is usually that of standing water and flooded fields. Rice fields appear to demand an excessive amount of water, but farmers maintain such is not the case. In the past few decades, farmers have implemented laser leveling to ensure fields are perfectly flat for flooding. At the same time, growing seasons have been shortened while increasing yields.
“The conversion of water into rice has probably doubled in the past 30 years as the result of conservation measures and shorter-seasoned varieties,” says Marysville rice farmer Charley Mathews.
Today, rice uses about 3.5 acre-feet of water per acre to sustain and mature a crop, though it is typical to apply between 5 to 7 acre-feet to account for runoff. Ground percolation is not a significant factor in rice fields because most good rice land is impermeable, says Steve Butler, a Sutter County rice farmer with 3,000 acres north of Robbins.
“Every year we pump more water out than we pump in,” he says of his rice farm. “There is rainfall on slow, nonpermeable soil plus all of the water that is put in for summer irrigation — the weight of that water actually causes the water table to rise and for the drainage ditches to run more. It’s like a big sponge, and when you apply pressure, the water gets pressed out.”
For waterfowl and shore birds, the standing water and lush vegetation offer a prime alternative to natural marshlands.
“We like to think that rice cultivation is the closest mimic to a wetland that we could have designed,” Butler says.
According to a report largely authored by John Sterling, president of the Central Valley Bird Club, for the California Rice Commission, California rice fields support nearly 230 species of wildlife, a number of which have experienced beneficial population increases as a result of the habitats.
Rice farmers and environmentalists tout this as proof that rice farming is one of the few agricultural pursuits capable of healing the wildlife population losses that were the result of mid-19th century land conversions that changed wetlands to farmlands.
Mathews says his farm is home to shore birds, quail, skunks, coyotes, snakes, rats, raptors and owls. “The bald eagles are my favorite, and we get them in the winter because they hunt duck,” he says.
Mathews also maintains that the beneficial relationship between rice and water isn’t just evident in the wildlife it attracts. Rice is one of the top yielding crops in terms of amount of goods produced per acre-foot of water consumed.
According to Mathews, one acre of land will use 3.5 acre-feet of water to produce about 6,000 pounds of white rice. Plus, rice is a sustainable crop that doesn’t deplete soil of its natural nutrients, so there is no need to fallow the land after harvest.
“I have one field that has been in rice consecutively for about 75 years,” he says. “You don’t need to rotate, so you can grow rice every year. We haven’t seen any ill effects to the soil; no erosion, nothing is degrading it.”