SITUATED in the Central Valley of California, wetlands shelter
more than 30 percent of the Pacific Flyway's wintering populations
of duck and geese. Yet, if you are a duck, flying into this rest
stop is like flying into a nightmare - habitat without enough water,
a dwindling food supply, poisonous runoffs, and increasing urban
For migrating waterfowl, one of the primary wetlands in the
Central Valley is the Grasslands. Managed by the Grasslands Resource
Conservation District and the Grasslands Water District (GWD), the
area is a patchwork quilt of private duck clubs and state and
federal refuges, accounting for more than 75,000 acres of habitat -
approximately 25 percent of the freshwater habitat in California.
This public/private partnership is responsible for saving much of
California's meager remaining wetlands. Yet, the Grasslands can't
get enough water to flood fields, grow wild food, or fill its pools,
even in the best of times.
By contract, the water district receives 50,000 acre feet of
water annually from the Central Valley Project, a federal agency
that owns and manages water rights in the Valley. Until recently,
the water district - like many other wetland areas - relied on
return flows from agriculture to supplement the contract water, up
to 100,000 acre feet. That was until selenium salt contamination
was discovered in 1983.
The agricultural drain water used to flood the Kesterson National
Wildlife Refuge was found to be loaded with selenium. Wildlife
biologists linked selenium to massive die-offs, deformities, and
infertility in waterfowl. Drain water could no longer be used to
irrigate and flood the wetlands, and no other water was available to
With the loss of two-thirds of the water supply, the Grasslands
cannot continue to support the migratory bird population and the
wildlife that inhabit it.
"Each year it has gotten more difficult to obtain needed water.
Unless we can find additional water sources this year, we run the
very real risk of drying up by February and being unable to provide
habitat for late-winter residents or irrigate for food production,"
says Don Marciochi, the water district's general manager.
Conservationists see this as a near disaster for the thousands of
birds and several endangered wildlife species, among them the San
Joaquin kit fox and the peregrine falcon, that use the Grasslands
"The Bureau of Reclamation's Refuge Water Supply Investigation
recommended 180,000 acre feet (of water) per year for optimum
management of the wetlands," says Tim Poole, wildlife biologist for
the Grasslands conservation district. "This year, we have managed to
scrape together just 67,000 acre feet."
Gary Zahm, United States Fish and Wildlife Service federal
refuges manager, says that, "Because of the lack of guaranteed
water, they (GWD) are forced to take the water when they can get it,
in one lump delivery, which is about the very worst way to manage a
Further complicating the situation is that the federal contract
to deliver water is subject to reduction in drought years. In a
long line demanding water deliveries, privately managed wetlands and
refuges wait at the end. As high-priority agribusiness users absorb
the contractual supplies, the wetlands and refuges dry up, according
"Our water supply is a tenuous one," says Mr. Marciochi. "When
we receive less than 50,000 acre feet from the government, as we did
this year, we are forced to go begging for any available surplus
water from sources like the Bureau of Reclamation and other water
and irrigation districts."
The problem has worsened through four years of California
drought. From the air, vast areas of the Grasslands, once a natural
flood plain, consist of brown vegetation and dry alkali flats -
certainly no welcome mat for migrating waterfowl. …