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Health issues are created by the standing water. Where there is rice, there is standing water. Even in Northern California the mosquitoes come in a cloud as the dust settles in the cool evening air. African slaves fell victim to malaria as new species of mosquito arrived on the slave ships. The quality of the water affects the breeding of the mosquito and, as a natural precaution and disruption of the cycle, it is important to create a slight movement in the water. This is the easiest and least toxic method of prevention, pesticide alternatives are not desirable given that the wetlands of the rice fields are habitat to frogs, fish and birds. The pesticide residue stays with the rice we eat, making organic options highly desirable.
Dragonflies, which are thick in the air, are also a great ally. As more reports hit the paper of sick horses and humans there will be increased pressure to use larvicides. This is of great concern, in that chemical use affects water, wildlife and ultimately impacts human food sources. Introducing tiny Gambusia, fish, which thrive on mosquito larva, has been partially successful as another control. The most recent concern in Northern California has come from the spread of the West Nile virus, which has moved rapidly across the country from the east to the west. I noted that on my last visit to the fields, that some of the farmers are introducing the mosquito fish into the ponds and still water areas can help to mitigate the mosquito issues.
In 1999, Rice farmers worked out a compromise to give up the annual burning of rice straw. The straw is disced to cut it into smaller pieces and the fields are re-flooded to break the straw down by anaerobic digestion. This has created an off-season habitat for water birds. This plan was the result of collaboration between environmental groups, sports hunters, and Ducks Unlimited.
Stopping the annual burn has made a significant improvement in the quality of life for the residents of the area. Currently, the only way to obtain a burning permit is to document a severe insect infestation. The issue to study now is whether the improved air quality has come at the expense of water quality. During burn season the smoke from the fires would be so thick that people in the community could not see across the valley for days. The rice straw also contains silica, which becomes airborne in the smoke creating an asbestos-like particle. This secondary flooding of the fields has created wetlands habitat for thousands of migratory birds. This has also created a side use of the land for recreational hunting. There has also been research in alternative uses for rice straw including construction, agricultural uses, erosion control and soil stabilization, paper and packaging, and fuel and energy. Currently the use of rice straw in the production of fuel, energy and paper are still in the experimental stages and looking to overcome issues of economic feasibility and technical challenges but, they still hold future promise. In November 2003 the Sacramento Bee published two articles, which demonstrate the conflict between developers, agriculture and habitat. In the story titled “New I-5 interchange unveiled in Natomas”, the writer discussed the opening of the new freeway interchange which will allow easier commuting for residents of the area and improved access to the Sacramento Kings Arena. The writer stated that the need for the freeway expansion was based on the fact that: “New houses now rise on former rice fields on both sides of Interstate 5 on a weekly basis. Officials have said the number of homes will continue to increase until North Natomas reaches a population of more than 60,000.” In another article titled “Flocking to Fields”, the writer discussed how the flooding of the rice fields in order to kill pests and breakdown the straw residues has provided massive shorebird habitat. Audubon observers have noted at least 14 species of shore bird and counts as high as 11,000 per day. Included in the species list is the highly imperiled long-billed curlew, one of the birds I was able to observe. The Valley is starting to look more like it did before California was widely settled and river levees were built”, said Ed Pandolfino of the Audubon Society. “It's certainly not the same as natural wetlands, but its just as good. This landscape is located in the Pacific Flyway—the path of migrating birds. The winter fields are full of geese, egrets, herons, and curlews. The chemicals used in rice farming can severely impact the bird population as DDT use did in the past. This requires careful monitoring and control. The fields I worked in most recently showed a healthy bird population along with frogs (an indicator species) and a variety of insects (required by many of the birds), clams and crawfish. I have observed quite an array of wildlife including: nesting swallows, beaver, many varieties of shorebirds and dragonflies, long with the ever present egrets and herons.
If you go into the irrigation canals themselves you will find clams and crawfish. This is an incredibly rich habitat and deserves study. Any imbalances can be seen quickly and like the canary in the coal mine, signal danger if we are observant and aware. Enlightened members of the farm community are recognizing that they have an ecological responsibility and are working to increase public awareness and take care of the air, land and water.
All Images © Patty Arnold 2004. All rights Reserved.