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Delta Farmlands

© Nancy Crowley

Delta Farmlands Program

The BirdReturns-Delta Farmlands Program provides incentive payments via an open bidding process for farmers to flood their farm fields to enhance habitat for migratory waterbirds during times of year when crops are not being grown. Because the targeted birds require specific habitat conditions, farmers selected for the program will be required to manage shallow water flooding on their fields for a minimum of five weeks, consisting of a one-week flood up, a minimum of two weeks of flooding, and a two-week drawdown period. To qualify, fields must also have little to no vegetation or crop residue, and minimal tillage to ensure waste grain is available for birds. The program will take place December 1, 2021 through April 30, 2022, with a preference for longer enrollments.

Bidding and Bid Selection Process

To apply for the program, farmers submit a bid specifying the acres and duration they are willing to flood, along with the dollar amount per acre that they need to recover their costs for creating the habitat.

Bids are due by November 15, 2021 at 12 noon.

Successful bids are those that can cost-efficiently flood up early in the program timeline, hold water for longer periods, maintain shallow water depths, and draw down water slowly. All bids will be scored and ranked by a habitat committee comprised of biologists and staff from the Migratory Bird Conservation Partnership and the Delta Conservancy. This committee will assess bids at the field level, using the best available science and tools that predict the habitat value of each field based on duration of flooding, field size and location in the landscape, the history of bird use in the surrounding area, and timing of flooding.

Online Office Hour: Monday, November 15

We will be available to take any questions from 11:00 a.m.-12 noon.

Join Zoom Meeting:
Meeting ID: 919 6002 8244
One tap mobile: +16699006833,,91960028244# US (PST)

Winter 2021-2022 Program

Beginning winter 2021 the Migratory Bird Conservation Partnership is collaborating with the Delta Conservancy to bring the BirdReturns Program to California’s Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta. The Delta is an important place for wetland birds because of its many wildlife-friendly crops like corn, wheat, and rice, as well as abundant surface water and location. Due to severe drought conditions, habitat for migrating birds will be in even shorter supply this year, reduced to less than a third of normal levels. With post-harvest flooding, privately owned farmland creates surrogate wetland habitat that migratory birds now depend on as they make their long journeys from Alaska to California and beyond, then back again in the spring.

Program Details
  • Contracts: short-term commitment of five weeks to five months
  • Timeline: December 13, 2021 through April 30, 2022, with flood-up required in December and preference given to those who flood for longer periods
  • Flooding: Flood and maintain depths between 2-4 inches throughout flooding period
    • In sloping fields, the shallow end should be maintained at approximately 2 inches; the deep end may be greater than 4 inches; however, if possible, cross-field berms should be installed to maximize shallow depths
    • Fields that are uniformly deeper that 4 inches are ineligible
  • Post-harvest stubble management required – a combination of any of the following post-harvest crop stubble treatments and incorporation practices may be used to meet our field condition requirements: burn, chop, roll, bale, single pass disc, single pass chisel, or stomp (see below for examples of suitable and unsuitable conditions)
  • Gradual drawdown required: after the required flooding period (one week of flood up, and a minimum of two weeks of flooding), reduce water levels incrementally over two weeks
  • 30-acre minimum field enrollment

Required Field Conditions

© Greg Golet
Suitable Conditions: Ideal waterbird habitat with mudflat-like conditions
© Greg Golet
Unsuitable Conditions: Poor field conditions for waterbirds with too much standing crop stubble and water that is too deep
© Greg Golet
Suitable Conditions: Great shallow flooded habitat, attracting lots of waterbirds
© Greg Golet
Unsuitable Conditions: Poor field conditions for waterbirds with too much standing stubble and water that is too deep
© Greg Golet
Suitable Conditions: Good field conditions for waterbirds, though smaller clumps are better
© Greg Golet
Unsuitable Conditions: Poor field conditions for waterbirds, with too much undecomposed vegetation; thick, matted vegetation makes it difficult for waterbirds to forage

Ineligible Fields

  • Within five miles of major airports
  • Those with more than 20% cover of standing stubble or other vegetation that is greater than 4 inches tall

Planning Recommendations

  • Most field crops are suitable, including but not limited to wheat and other cereal grains, garbanzo beans, tomatoes, potatoes, sunflower, safflower, corn, rice, or fallow fields
  • If multiple fields (in close proximity) are available for flooding, it is beneficial to stagger the flood-up by 1-2 weeks; if only one field is available, consider splitting it into two or more sections with cross-field berms and flooding each section 1-2 weeks apart

The Delta Farmlands Program, which for the first time brings BirdReturns to California’s Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, is managed by the Migratory Bird Conservation Partnership (The Nature Conservancy, Audubon California, and Point Blue Conservation Science), in partnership with the Delta Conservancy.

Why is the Delta-Farmlands Program Important?

Millions of ducks, geese, swans, cranes, and shorebirds depend on wetland habitat in the Central Valley, and they are critical to its ecosystem. The Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta is an especially important place for wetland-dependent birds, particularly during drought.

Shorebirds are in steep decline, and if they don’t have a place to stop and rest during migration this year, population levels may drop even further. Other waterbirds that overwinter in the Delta are also likely to suffer, including the iconic sandhill crane.

During this year of intense drought, there is far less opportunity to provide additional flooded habitat in other parts of the Central Valley, so the Delta is crucial.

Maintaining a mosaic of wetlands and well-managed wildlife-friendly croplands will allow this region to continue to support these birds while simultaneously benefiting other wildlife and the regional economy.