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Strange drought allies: Rice farmers, urban environmentalists

Updated: Jan 4, 2022

June 12, 2015

Jacob Katz, Central California Regional Director of California Trout, checks out a canal for trapped salmon, a common occurrence in the area, in the Yolo Bypass flood area near the Fremont Weir April 14, 2015 outside of Woodland, Calif. The Yolo Bypass is one of two flood bypasses created to protect Sacramento from flooding during rainy seasons. Leah Millis/The Chronicle

Some California farmers see fish as their ally — and fellow farmers as the threat.

Sacramento rice farmer John Brennan is working with fish biologist Jacob Katz of the conservation group California Trout to allow the Yolo Bypass, a flood relief valve west of Sacramento that was built during the Depression, to provide winter habitat not just for birds but for salmon.

The fish experiment is part of a strange political realignment, hastened by drought, that has rice farmers allying with Bay Area cities that are short on water and long on environmentalists.

Rice farmers used to be top targets of environmentalists for using subsidized water to grow a subsidized crop. In the past few years that’s changed, however, and environmentalists who are angry at farmers seldom mention rice in the same breath as almonds or alfalfa.

But rice farmers’ precious historic water rights in the Sacramento Valley could be vulnerable if the state decides to rethink its water laws. This year, delta farmers agreed to voluntarily cut their water use by 25 percent, even though the concession gave them no guarantee that the state will protect their water rights in the future. If the state takes a fresh examination of the entire system, farmers to the south whose water rights are less secure could pose a political threat.

So Brennan is looking to salmon, and people who care about them, as a new constituency for rice.

“Nobody cares about rice farmers,” Brennan said, “but everybody cares about fish.”

Migrating shorebirds have flocked to winter rice fields since farmers began flooding them in the 1990s to rot the stubble they were no longer allowed to burn. These surrogate wetlands mimic shallow river floodplains, nurturing a complex food web.

Since 2011, Katz has been demonstrating that salmon thrive there too, growing much fatter if they spend a few weeks on a floodplain instead of in a canal.

That is critical, because fish are at the crux of California’s water woes.

Efforts to help fish so far have been spectacularly unsuccessful. In April, a four-day survey of 40 sites in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta turned up just one delta smelt, the endangered fish that farmers most blame for their water cutbacks. Scientists now consider the delta smelt and its longfin cousin, once among the delta’s most abundant fish, to be “functionally extinct.”

Two salmon runs, steelhead and sturgeon, are in similarly dire straits. “We have a whole series of fish that are declining very rapidly,” said UC Davis fish biologist Peter Moyle.

Using the Yolo Bypass to grow rice in summer and fish in winter would help salmon thrive on a shallow floodplain, Katz said. Rice farmers, in turn, would still be able to grow crops. The plan will require state and federal approval.

Underscoring the muscle behind the new political alliance between rice farmers and fish, Brennan’s company, Robbins Rice of Colusa, fallowed acreage this year and sold some of the saved water to the East Bay Municipal Utility District instead of farmers south of the delta.

The interest in birds and fish and wetlands comes from cities, Brennan said. Through rice farms, he said, people in cities could get a backup water supply and wetlands “basically at the same place.”

“EBMUD is a better political partner,” he said, “than Southern California pistachio growers.”

Carolyn Lochhead was the Washington correspondent for the San Francisco Chronicle, where she covered national politics and policy for 27 years. She grew up in Paso Robles (San Luis Obispo County) and graduated from UC Berkeley cum laude in rhetoric and economics. She has a masters of journalism degree from Columbia University. Twitter: @carolynlochhead


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