Partnering for conservation in the Tulare Basin

150 150 Niki Woodard

Photo courtesy of Flickr user wonderlane
A water reservoir in the Central Valley / photo courtesy of Flickr user wonderlane

The need to strike a balance between nature and society’s growth has never been more pressing, nor more complicated and expensive, than it is today. In this endeavor, the key word is balance. 

The Tulare Basin, which covers a vast area of land between the San Joaquin and Kern Rivers, was once the largest expanse of wetlands in California and the single most important wintering area for Pacific Flyway waterfowl in the state. Several lakes defined the region, including the historic Tulare Lake, once the largest freshwater lake (in terms of surface area) west of the Great Lakes. 

The Tulare Basin has lost the highest percentage of native land compared with any other region in California. As the state’s population has swelled over the last 150 years, water has been diverted for agricultural uses and urban consumption, drying up habitat and eliminating or endangering many wildlife species.

How Do We Achieve Balance?

Finding balance happens when diverse stakeholders come together to determine needs, challenges and opportunities. The Tulare Basin Working Group (TBWG) was established in 2003 to do just that. It is a consortium of 70+ public agencies, private organizations and private individuals concerned with the protection and restoration of natural resources in the Tulare Lake Basin. 

The TBWG meets biannually to strike a balance between the often competing interests of natural and economic outcomes by collaborating on conservation opportunities that achieve multiple benefits for wildlife, people and agriculture. Some of those multiple benefits include: providing water for current wetlands, recharging groundwater, water banking, water recycling, reducing stormwater flooding and improving soil conditions on retired farmland.

To accomplish this, the TBWG practices an approach known as integrated resource management (IRM), recently promoted by California’s Secretary for Natural Resources Lester Snow in a policy summit. The essence of IRM is watershed-based collaboration, and it is the key to Californians accomplishing meaningful resource protection in a time of limited funding. 

On April 27, the TBWG convened for its first 2012 meeting, aptly titled, “A Celebration of Waterfowl and Migratory Bird Stewardship, Habitat Restoration and Integrated Resource Management in the Tulare Basin” and toured several duck clubs northwest of Wasco.

Since the mid-19th century, some of the most strategic partners in habitat conservation have been the numerous duck clubs that dot the valley floor. 

Duck clubs undertake large-scale conservation and restoration projects in an effort to attract more ducks during the hunting season. However, these clubs provide habitat year round, supporting growing populations of local wildlife, migratory birds and waterfowl, many of which are classified by state and/or federal agencies as endangered or of special concern. 

Through collaboration with agricultural and environmental interests and funders, the clubs strike a balance between goals for recreation, conservation and agriculture.  

“The working group [TBWG] supports these efforts, and in the next few years we hope to secure more affordable water for Tulare Basin wetlands through the use of recycled water and solar power development,” said Chris Hildebrandt, Regional Biologist with Ducks Unlimited (DU).

To get an idea of the scale of wetland restoration accomplished by these groups, DU alone has restored or enhanced 24,530 acres of wetlands and 3,880 acres of associated uplands in the last 25 years. 

Some of the projects recently completed and/or in progress include: conservation easements to conserve, in perpetuity, important migratory bird habitat against development pressures; new pumps to supply water to wetlands, and restored habitat that attracts waterfowl, including the tri-colored blackbird, a State and Federal species of special concern. 

The Water Balancing Act 

One of the greatest challenges facing conservation work in the Tulare Basin is water availability.  

“In an arid environment, water is the ultimate sovereign,” wrote Carey McWilliams, author of California, The Great Exception

Historically, California is prone to alternating periods of drought and flooding. As such, the demands of our growing society require dramatic alteration of the landscape to secure a stable water supply. Those alterations have yielded unintended consequences, for which we are now trying to mitigate, as water needs for agriculture and urban use continue to rise.  

“We’ve got a long way to go to mitigate for the 2.7 million acres that were altered under the CVP [Central Valley Project],” said Dan Strait, Manager of the CVP Conservation Program, U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.

Through such collaborative processes as the integrated resource management approach taken on by the Tulare Basin Working Group and its members, there is hope and opportunity for overcoming our water challenges in California. 

One example of innovative thinking is a project being developed in coordination with the City of Delano to deliver recycled wastewater for use in Tulare Basin wetlands. With proper sanitary treatment, the water can be cleaned for use on agriculture, wetlands and groundwater recharge. 

“It’s a win-win situation – a permanent, dependable supply of water for wetlands, and an opportunity for the City of Delano to put their water to a very good use,” said Hildebrandt of DU, who is spearheading the project.  

The projects celebrated at the TBWG meeting are a result of a highly collaborative process that engages partners like Ducks Unlimited, California Waterfowl Association, Central Valley Joint Venture, and others, with key funding from the California Wildlife Conservation Board, Natural Resources Conservation Service (Wetlands Reserve Program; Wildlife Habitat Incentives Program), U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (North American Wetlands Conservation Act; Partners for Fish and Wildlife). All of these groups were represented at the April 27 TBWG meeting, along with the California Department of Fish and Game, California Audubon, U.S. Bureau of Land Management, River Partners, Conservation Strategy Group, Wildlands Inc., Tulare Basin Wetlands Association, Tulare County Citizens for Responsible Growth, Southern California Edison, College of the Sequoias, and the TBWG planning organization, Tulare Basin Wildlife Partners.

Niki Woodard is a content contributor for California Forward, the communications specialist for the Tulare Basin Wildlife Partners and principal of Spiral-PR.


Niki Woodard

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