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Wetlands Program

Since 2014 BirdReturns has been supporting farmers in the Sacramento Valley to adaptively manage their lands to benefit waterbirds. Now, the Migratory Bird Conservation Partnership (The Nature Conservancy, Audubon California, and Point Blue Conservation Science) is applying that success to extend the BirdReturns program to wetland owners located within and south of California’s Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, partnering with Ducks Unlimited and the California Waterfowl Association. Private wetlands compose sixty-five percent of remnant wetland habitat in the Central Valley, making them important habitat strongholds. By supporting wetland owners to flood-up, private wetlands can meet habitat needs for all waterbird species, especially important during drought when there is far less across the Central Valley.


The BirdReturns-Delta and South of Delta Wetlands Program provides incentive payments for wetland owners to flood unflooded wetlands no sooner than December 1st and maintain water levels to February 28th. Wetland managers are asked to meet specific conditions in their fields to provide high-quality habitat for waterbirds, specifically shallower water depths, low vegetation and crop residue, and minimal tillage

To apply for the winter program, wetland owners submit a bid consisting of the dollar amount per acre that they need to cover their costs to create the habitat as described.

Stay tuned for a spring program that will ask wetland owners to flood and hold shallow water on their wetlands beginning April 1, then gradually drawdown water over 4-6 weeks.

Bid Ranking and Scoring Process

All bids will be ranked and scored by the Migratory Bird Conservation Partnership, Ducks Unlimited, and the California Waterfowl Association. Representatives from these groups will assess bids according to standardized methods, using the best available science and tools that predict the habitat value of each bid according to its location in the landscape, history of bird use in the surrounding area, and timing of flooding. Ranking criteria include an analysis of potential bird abundance, historic habitat availability, acres of flooding, duration of flooding, proximity to existing wildlife areas, and bid cost.

Winter-Spring 2021-2022

December 1, 2021-April 30, 2022

In response to the severe drought in 2021, the Migratory Bird Conservation Partnership, with funding from the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, is coordinating an emergency drought response program to increase the amount of wetland habitat available during winter and spring.

Winter Program Details
  • Contracts: short-term commitment of 1 to 3 months
  • Timeline: December 1, 2021 through February 28, 2022
    • Longer flooding is expected to rank higher
    • Delta-based wetlands must do initial flood-up in December
    • Rolling start dates on the 1st of each month.
  • Flooding: Flood non-flooded units and maintain depths that coincide with being “fully flooded”, for the start of the program
    • In wetlands with extensive topography, the shallow end should be no less than 6 inches deep.
  • Contracts are ranked on timing, habitat quality, length of flooding, and cost
Spring Program Details
  • Contracts: short-term commitment of 1 to 2 months
  • Timeline: March 1- April 30, 2022
    • Longer flooding is expected to rank higher
    • Delta-based wetlands are eligible only if they were flooded before Jan. 1, 2022
  • Flooding: Same as Winter requirements

Ineligible Applications

  • Within 5 miles of major airports, including Fresno-Yosemite International Airport and Lemoore Naval Air Station
  • Within 500 feet of an over-drawn municipal well

Planning Recommendations

  • Holding water after hunting season and maintaining full flooding may reduce costs over draining fields and re-flooding for spring drawdown period

Required Conditions

© Khara Strum
Left side of image: Traditionally managed wetlands that do not create needed habitat for migratory birds into the spring
Right side of image: Gradually drawn down wetlands that can provide needed habitat for migratory birds into the spring
© Tim Poole
Late winter-early spring conditions that begin to attract waterbirds with minimal vegetation
© Tim Poole
Gradual drawdown after one week that begins to expose mudflats on the edge of the unit, with little to no vegetation throughout most of the unit
© Tim Poole
Late season habitat that shows exposed mudflats with standing water near the middle of the unit; demonstrates what ideal site conditions are prior to flooding
© Tim Poole
Great shallow flooded habitat with variable water depths, attracting different species of birds

Why is this program important?

Millions of ducks, geese, swans, cranes, and shorebirds depend on wetland habitat in the Central Valley. Adaptively managing privately owned wetlands extends and maximizes 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.

California’s Central Valley is an important place for waterbirds and the drought is dangerously reducing wetland habitat.

Shorebirds are in steep decline, and if they don’t get a place to stop and rest during migration this year, population levels may drop even further.

Without our help, other waterbirds that overwinter in the Delta and south of Delta are also likely to suffer.

Drought Relief: A Make It or Break It Year

Why is flooding even more critical this year?

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.

Migratory birds are critical for the Central Valley ecosystem in the long term, and investing in bird populations now means investing in our crops in the future.

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