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Waterfowl `Rest Stop' Endangered

California's dwindling wetlands areas struggle against water shortages and urban creep

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 encroachment. 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.

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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 replace it.

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 year round.

``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 wetlands resource.''

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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 to Poole.

``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.

One solution that has been investigated is the use of the Grasslands as a water-storage area, much like a reservoir. Marciochi points out that this would not only meet vital wetlands needs and provide a cheap alternative to the Bureau of Reclamation's water storage requirements but also provide benefits for salmon when water is released into the nearby San Joaquin River. However, no plan is in place at this time.

Mr. Zahm says that, ``Federal and state legislation guaranteeing water to the Grasslands and other wetland refuges is the only way to guarantee preservation. That and an infusion of construction funds for irrigation needs.''

Recently, groups and individuals opposed to duck hunting have been giving wetlands conservationists more to worry about. Repeated, although unsuccessful, attempts have been made to halt the duck-hunting season.

Ducks Unlimited, a private, nonprofit group, is dedicated to conserving wetland habitat for waterfowl and other wildlife but is not opposed to hunting. The organization reports that of the 291,555 wetland acres left in the Central Valley, two-thirds are owned and managed by private duck clubs.

``Duck hunting is the driving recreational force within the wetlands,'' Zahm says. ``Without the duck clubs, there wouldn't be enough money or interest to save this vital habitat.''

Hunters pay millions of dollars every year for licenses, duck stamps, and excise taxes that all go to finance game research and management programs. Hunters also pay millions of dollars annually to maintain and manage their privately owned clubs.

``There are over 165 hunting clubs and each has its own style of management. This results in tremendous habitat diversity, which is outstanding for the entire wetlands,'' says Mr. Poole of the Grasslands Resource Conservation District. ``To lose hunting in the wetlands would mean the end of the wetlands.''

LACK of water and a strong antihunting movement are not the only difficulties facing the Grasslands. Urban growth is threatening. The widening of Highway 152, which offers a potential commuting corridor between Los Banos and the Silicon Valley, has developers seeing dollar signs and refuge managers sounding the alarm.

According to Marciochi, ``The land here is relatively cheap and there is a lot of it available, making the Central Valley a very attractive area for home buyers. We are not antidevelopment. We just want to make sure that whatever development comes to Los Banos is located in areas that will not negatively affect the future of the wetlands.''

The two most immediate threats to the Grasslands are Meadowlands, a 900-unit development with a proposed golf course and 243-acre industrial park, and Pajaro Vista, a 1,900-unit development also with a golf course.

Pepper Johnson, president of the conservation district, points out that Meadowlands and Pajaro Vista would cut the flight corridor for migrating waterfowl by more than half.

``These developments have the potential to severely damage a major wildlife region that has defined the area for hundreds of years,'' Marciochi adds. ``There are problems with the projects, including wildlife impacts and surface and subsurface water impacts.

While it seems unlikely that two golf courses will be built practically next to each other, the proposed housing developments pose a serious threat to the district. There are fears that if Meadowlands and Pajaro Vista are allowed to be built, the precedent will be set for increasing development in sensitive wetlands, permanently damaging a vital resource.

Although some people argue that development has no effect on the wetlands and may in fact enhance them, one fact cannot be ignored. What once was a teeming wetland of 4 million-plus acres has been reduced to a struggling remnant of 300,000 acres, barely able to support the wildlife that depends on it.

The American public needs these wetlands, says Zahm. ``The Grasslands and other wetlands are a living and breathing symbol of a vanishing quality of life, a last frontier of open space whose pulse is getting weaker under the tightening fingers of human encroachment.''

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