Archive | June, 2012

Ambitious New Flood Plan Will Boost California’s Salmon While Protecting Lives, Property and Agriculture

by Dave Stalling and Kelly Catlett

As directed by the 2007 state legislature, the California Central Valley Flood Protection Board has recently adopted an ambitious, comprehensive Central Valley Flood Protection Plan to promote integrated flood management. Working closely with California Trout and other partners, Trout Unlimited California (TUCA) and Defenders of Wildlife urged the Flood Board to adopt a plan that protects lives and property, conserves farmlands, and improves fish and wildlife habitat that will benefit anglers, hunters and others.

TUCA and Defenders feel it is critically important that the plan incorporate floodplains, flood bypasses and levee setbacks to give rivers room to expand during high waters. This will not only reduce the risk of catastrophic floods and protect people, but will also increase reliability and quality of water supply by protecting the Delta and recharging groundwater, ensure the certainty of local government decisions regarding matters such as where people can and cannot build, and protect and enhance fish and wildlife habitat and related fishing, hunting and other recreational activities.

With an extensive system of levees and dams, the Central Valley’s two major rivers – the Sacramento and San Joaquin – have long been disconnected from their traditional floodplains. Since these river management systems were first designed more than 100 years ago, research has shown that disconnecting rivers from floodplains increases risks to public safety and causes significant environmental damage, including damage to native fish, wildlife, and plant populations.

California has some of the most highly managed watersheds in the world. The network of levees and dams that regulates floods, generates hydropower, and provides water for urban and agricultural users has essentially disconnected this area from the rivers that run through it. As a result, the Sacramento River Basin is second only to New Orleans in its risk of a catastrophic flood – threatening lives, property, farms, water supplies and native fisheries.  Giving rivers access to their natural floodplains and allowing for flood bypasses and levee setbacks will relieve pressure during high water flows and lower the chances of massive property destruction and injury to people. If done right, it also replenishes nutrients in agricultural soils while providing ideal rearing conditions for salmon and habitat for migratory birds and other riparian species.

Research out of the UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences indicates that when juvenile salmon are given access to floodplains they grow significantly larger, increasing their chances of survival. Rivers that have access to floodplains also help restore native plants, which in turn support native wildlife of all types and benefit native species in the fight against invasive species.

Some of the biggest benefits from reconnecting rivers with floodplains accrue to migratory birds. Birds use floodplains for breeding, nesting, and rearing young. Floodplains provide a source of drinking water and habitat for feeding, resting, shelter, and social interactions. Flooded areas are also an important barrier to land-based predators and reduce the risk of predation to nesting or young birds. Additionally, floodplains provide corridors that allow wildlife to move from one habitat to another, especially in urban areas where development has fragmented alternative travel routes for wildlife.

The Sacramento River at one time expanded to as wide as five miles before dams and levees hemmed it in. Its floodplains sheltered young salmon from the quick river flows and attracted ideal food to help young fish grow quickly. Juvenile salmon that spend time on the floodplain grow faster than those that use only the river channel during their migration to the ocean, according to Carson Jeffres, fish ecologist for the Center for Watershed Sciences. This increase in productivity on the floodplain is because the water is warmer and food is more abundant.  Because of the increased growth, the juvenile salmon are larger when they head out to sea and can survive better by swimming faster and avoiding predators. The same warmer water that benefits salmon is also a boon to wildlife. Warm water helps insects and invertebrates grow faster and these are an important food source for waterfowl, as well.

And what’s good for fish and wildlife is good for people. Strong fish and wildlife populations are a harbinger of a healthy ecosystem – a healthy ecosystem that will protect lives, protect farms, protect fish and wildlife and benefit those of us who love to fish, hunt and otherwise enjoy healthy rivers and healthy habitat.

For more information about the flood plan and flood protection board, check out the following site:

Posted in California2 Comments

Vanishing Prairies and Vanishing Protections

Vanishing Prairies and Vanishing Protections

The “Protect our Prairies Act,” offered by Representatives Noem and Walz aims to protect our rapidly disappearing prairies. This protection is urgently needed because grassland loss rates of 10% to 15% recorded in key areas of the prairie pothole region from 2008 to 2011 imply a loss of 50% to 75% of this critical resource within 15 years. Unfortunately, proposed protections offer only a small fraction of protections provided in past farm legislation even though today’s need is vastly greater.

The amendment works by denying crop insurance and other subsidies for five years to farmers that plow up grasslands. Unfortunately, Economic Research Service (ERS) economists’ most recent estimate suggests that denying crop insurance and other program subsidies for five years could reduce grassland conversions in the Northern Plains only as much as 9% compared to conversions that would otherwise occur. Since the Protect our Prairies Act only reduces these crop insurance subsidies by half, and only for four years, reductions in the rate of prairie loss are likely to be less than 4%. This is a step in the right direction, but only a baby step.

A more aggressive approach would deny federal subsidies on sodbusted land permanently, as was the case in farm legislation prior to 2008. Doing so offers double the economic sanction compared to the version of sodsaver analyzed by ERS, and four times the sanction in “Protect our Prairies.” We advance from achieving “the less than 9% reduction” in grassland conversion for the ERS option, to achieving less than 18% reduction in the grassland loss.

According to ERS, high crop prices have become the major driver regarding loss of prairie, even though government subsidies to farmers in the region have greatly increased. Government payments fell to 20% of net farm income, while an earlier study found these payments were 53.7% of net farm income in the South Dakota of 1996-2001. Prices of major crops in the region have tripled.

Posted in Agriculture, Paying for Conservation0 Comments

Budget Savings, Wildlife Benefits, and Family Farmer Benefits from Limiting Government Subsidies to the Largest Farms

Farm program subsidies, crop prices, and land values all tripled in the Dakotas in just 15 years, as has the loss of prairie pothole grassland.  Eastern North Dakota lost 10% to 15% of wetlands and grassland to crop use in just three years.  At this rate, most of the remaining grassland habitat in this major nesting region for ducks and shorebirds will be gone in just 15 years.

This is not a good time to abandon 25 years of protection for wetlands and grasslands, but crucial protections will vanish unless the Senate amends the farm bill recently passed by the Senate Agricultural Committee.  Fortunately, a budget smart farm bill amendment by Senators Toomey and Shaheen aims to save billions of tax dollars by limiting federal crop insurance subsidies to the largest farmers to $40,000 per farm.  Since the larger farmers own the great majority of the land, these subsidy limits also considerably reduce major farm program drivers for prairie grassland and wetland conversion.

Limiting crop insurance subsidies to $40,000 per farm primarily aims to reduce the federal budget deficit.  This works because subsidy limits especially affect the largest 10% of crop farms, who enjoy 75% of the program payments.  These giant farming operations historically increase their subsidies by adding more cropland.  They expand 1) by buying other farms, 2) by renting, and 3) by plowing up prairie pothole grassland.  But farmers large enough to already reach the proposed $40,000 payment limit no-longer will increase their subsidy by increasing cropland area.  Today’s more than 90 percent of farms, and all small farms, will not be directly affected by the proposed subsidy limits because their government subsidies are less than $40,000.  They own a very small portion of the crop land in the U.S., even though they still make up the vast majority of farms.  Subsidy limits actually help them compete.

Although the farm bill under consideration in the Senate (S3240) virtually eliminates compliance and swampbuster protection, Senator Cardin introduced a Senate amendment (2219) to re-introduce these important protections which have been part of farm programs for 25 years.  We think that this amendment is crucial, but its focus is soil conservation and wetland protection, not grasslands.  The $40,000 per farm limits on crop insurance subsidies, which Senators Toomey and Shaheen introduced in another amendment, reduces program pressures to plow up more prairie grassland and drain wetlands.

For over three decades, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has cautioned that farm subsidies could tilt the playing field toward the largest farmers, who capture so much of the subsidies, and away from more modest, family farms.  Meaningful payment limits address these uneven playing field problems, as well as the above budget and wildlife problems.

Meaningful subsidy limits address perverse incentives to expand cropland acreage, whether that expansion occurs by buying up neighboring farms or by busting out more prairie pothole grassland and draining wetlands.  The Senate has an opportunity simultaneously to achieve substantial budget savings, to provide major wildlife benefits, and to better serve family farms.

Posted in Paying for Conservation0 Comments

New Studies Highlight the Value of National Wildlife Refuges to Visitors and Communities

With visitation steadily rising each year – up to 45 million people in 2011 – national wildlife refuges are clearly popular destinations, but their value to visitors and the economy has remained largely unquantified.  Two new studies are helping to remedy that problem.

Last month, the U.S. Geological Survey released the results of a study that surveyed more than 10,000 visitors to 53 national wildlife refuges around the nation.  Approximately 90 percent of respondents expressed satisfaction with the recreational opportunities, services, and information provided at the wildlife refuges.  In addition, the survey measured visitor spending in nearby communities.  At Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge in New Mexico, for example, average spending in the area by nonlocal visitors was $82 per day, while local visitors averaged $45 per day in spending.  These expenditures can add up.  According to the 2006 Banking on Nature report, visitors to the nation’s wildlife refuges that year contributed approximately $1.7 billion in sales to local economies.  The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is expected to release an updated version of that report later this year.

A separate study released last week adds to a growing body of evidence that being located in close proximity to protected open spaces boosts home values.  Researchers from North Carolina State University focused on urban national wildlife refuges in three regions of the country and found that homes within one-half mile of those refuges were valued three to nine percent higher than those located further from a refuge.  Wildlife refuges included in the study were found to boost local property values by $122 million in the Southeast, $95 million in the Northeast, and $83 million in the California/Nevada region.  An upcoming report on ecosystem services will offer an additional measure of the economic value of America’s wildlife refuges.

Though these benefits are undeniably significant, the National Wildlife Refuge System has consistently lacked the congressional investment needed to reach its full potential.  Even at its highest funding level in FY 2010, the Refuge System received only $503 million – little more than half the $900 million that the Cooperative Alliance for Refuge Enhancement estimates is needed for the agency to fulfill its conservation mission.  Unfortunately, as Congress looks to make good on the debt deal reached last summer, the Refuge System could see its appropriations slashed by 10 percent or more.  These cuts could force many refuges to eliminate recreation programs or close their doors entirely, and many of the demonstrated benefits that they provide to visitors and to local economies will be lost.

Posted in National Wildlife Refuges, Public Lands0 Comments

dotWild is the blog of scientists and policy experts at Defenders of Wildlife, a national, nonprofit membership organization dedicated to the protection of all native animals and plants in their natural communities.