No, the Central Valley refuges aren't getting 100% of their federal water allocations. Not remotely.

by Meghan Hertel

Reading the news earlier this month that Central Valley wildlife refuges were going to receive 100 percent of their federal water allocations normally would 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 last three years.

But we weren’t thrilled because we knew that it 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‐needed water supply.

The Bureau of Reclamation announced water allocations for this year including a 100 percent allocation of “Level 2” water supplies to wildlife refuges. Level 2 water is defined as the average water that refuges received until 1992 from the Central Valley Project, which is not the amount they need to fully manage for a full 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 need to meet their ecological needs.

In addition, nearly one quarter (5 out of 19) of CVPIA wildlife refuges 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 ability 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, which is 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 habitat is also vital for preservation of state and federally listed species such as the giant garter snake and Tricolored Blackbird.
  • Limited ability 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 first to be blamed for taking more than water 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 on 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 to 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 to fully deliver the mandated “Level 4” that was promised under the CVPIA. 

Meghan Hertel is Audubon California's Working Lands director.

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