When the first waves of ducks arrived at Lower Klamath Basin NWR in September, they were met by an unfamiliar sight: a refuge without water.
For just the second time in 80 years, the marshes were completely dry. January and February were the driest on record in California and the entire state remained in severe drought into September.
California isn't alone. According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, virtually all of the western U.S. remained locked in a moderate to extreme drought deep into September with little hope of relief.
Conditions haven't improved much in parts of Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas since 2011, and numerous western regions remain in what USDM categorizes as "exceptional" drought. That could spell trouble for migrating waterfowl. DU director of conservation planning Mark Petrie says places like the Great Salt Lake are already experiencing the effects of the prolonged dry spell.
"The lack of fresh water means the salinity levels are increasing and that is changing the availability of foods," he says.
Severe drought is also having a dramatic impact on winter habitat in coastal Texas, which has been in an epic drought for five years. Mandatory water restrictions prevented farmers from planting 50,000 acres of rice this year, more than a third of the region's total rice acreage.
According to a DU report, 10,000 acres of rice supports an estimated 120,000 ducks and geese. Coastal Texas is home to 2 million wintering waterfowl.
"If the birds don't have adequate food throughout the winter, they go into the spring migration in poor condition," Petrie said. "We know how important waste rice is to wintering waterfowl, so a significant decline in rice production is going to impact ducks and geese fairly significantly. Some may not make it to their nesting grounds and some others might not be in good enough shape to nest successfully."
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