The wetlands at the San Luis National Wildlife Refuge Complex, on the outskirts of Los Banos, and the Merced National Wildlife Refuge are drying up.
Last week, refuge officials said they were told the Merced Irrigation District would be cutting off water deliveries to the San Luis National Wildlife Refuge Complex, East Bear Creek unit, which is 4,000 acres of mixed wetlands and upland heavily used by migrating geese, sandhill crane and ducks.
“There is no more water being delivered to that area of the refuge,” said Karl Stromayer, assistant manager of the San Luis National Wildlife Refuge.
San Luis National Wildlife Refuge Complex still receives water from the Grassland Water District and the San Luis Canal Company.
“There was an agreement to provide the (San Luis Wildlife) Refuge (East Bear Creek unit) water from Lake Yosemite, near the city of Merced, which was based on there being water available in the lake,” said Hicham Eltal, deputy general manager for the Merced Irrigation District. “Because of the extreme dry conditions, Lake Yosemite was not replenished by water. Therefore the Merced Irrigation District has to terminate the delivery.”
Said Stromayer, “What’s going to happen is the wetlands are going to start drying out early and there will be less habitat for the migratory birds.”
The Central Valley Project Improvement Act of 1992,though, mandates certain amounts of water for state and federal conservation areas for wildlife conservation.
“It’s very important the habitat is here for them and that our water supply this year, best case scenario, is only going to be 50 to 60 percent of our allotment,” said Jack Sparks, outdoor recreation planner for the San Luis National Wildlife Refuge.
Stromayer explained the refuge receives a certain amount of water depending on wetlands acreage. For example, the Merced National Wildlife Refuge has 1,550 acres of wetlands, of which only one-third is currently flooded, while the San Luis National Wildlife Refuge has between 6,000 and 7,000 acres to maintain.
The San Luis National Wildlife Refuge gets about 50,000 acre feet of delivered water per year, which is managed by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, a federal agency.
“We think that next year we’re going to get 50 to 60 percent of what we should get,” Stromayer said, “If we’re lucky.”
Those numbers could change however due to heavy snowfall in the Sierra or if it rains later in the winter or early spring.
“When you’re on these refuges and you see a wetland flooded with water, that’s not a natural occurrence here, that water, is basically transported to the refuge through a network of canals and systems just to flood the wetlands for wildlife,” Sparks said.
In addition to the water cutback, dry and warm conditions are also playing a role. The water that is allotted doesn’t stretch as far, Sparks added.
“The ground is so dry, you put water in the ground and it sucks it right up,” Sparks said. “We have very long delivery canals … and in the course of the water being transported to the wetlands you lose a lot to evaporation and to ground absorption. The water we do have doesn’t go as far as a normal rain year.”
January is a peak time for geese, crane and duck at the refuges. It is also a time where the wetlands are fully flooded and waterfowl is abundant.
The impact the dire drought conditions will have on the land will greatly affect the birds, according to officials. “Waterfowl that spend the fall and winter here, that need the habitat, basically have less habitat than they usually do,” Stromayer said.
The less water on the ground means birds will congregate around areas water is plentiful. “When the birds concentrate, then you have more instances of disease,” Sparks said. “When they get together in really tight groups under stressful situations, that’s when you see the outbreak of various diseases.”
Even more worrisome is the condition of the birds when they begin to head back to their breading grounds, so refuge officials are trying to maintain what little water is available for the most important wetlands, not only for the bird species but for other wildlife. “The other thing is, if the wetlands dry up, the birds won’t be able to feed normally,” Stromayer said. “They won’t be able to access food.”
Migratory birds feed on the land to store energy reserves in order to prepare for migration to Canada or Alaska. “When they get back up to the northern breeding ground, they can breed successful,” Stromayer said. “If they don’t have suitable habitat here to prepare for the migration, they’re going to be in bad condition.”
Officials said the bigger fear is that the birds may not lay as many eggs or they may die on the way.
March and April is normally the time migratory species head home and resident species, which spend the whole year in the area, peak.
One million migratory birds visit Merced County per year. “As we get into the spring, our worry level will decrease,” Stromayer said.
By summer, 90 percent of the wetlands are usually dry.
There are also natural wetlands that fill from rainfall or flooding and officials are worried that won’t happen either.
On Thursday, there was a 70 percent chance of precipitation in Merced, according to the National Weather Service. Refuge officials said that wouldn’t be nearly enough rainfall to feel some relief. “We need snow in the mountains,” Sparks said.
More than 90,000 people visit the San Luis National Wildlife Refuge Complex per year and nearly 40,000 visit the Merced National Wildlife Refuge.
Although the drought is hurting the refuge, officials said there is still plenty to see.
The San Luis Wildlife Refuge auto tour routes, nature trails, and fishing access are open daily from one-half hour before sunrise to one-half hour after sunset. The Visitor Center is open daily from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. except federal holidays. It is at 7376 S. Wolfsen Road in Los Banos. The Merced National Wildlife Refuge is eight miles south of Merced on state Highway 59, then eight miles west on Sandy Mush Road.