Water required to grow rice has farmers under scrutiny

Those vast plots of soaked land are likely rice fields, which use millions of gallons of water. But like everyone else in California, rice farmers now have less water to use.

Overall, California rice planting is expected to drop six percent this year. For rice grower Steve Rystrom, it's more.

"We're planting abut 75% of our normal acreage," Rystrom told KTVU. "Some people who don't have any wells are planting about 43% of their normal."

Rystrom is following in the footsteps of his father and grandfather who started farming in Butte County in 1910.

"Rice grows really, really well," he said.

He has 2,000 acres of rice fields but some of that land won't be planted because his water district has cut his water supply in half. So he's making up the difference with well water.

"We haven't used our wells in like 20 years, 23 years I think, so there's a lot of unknowns," he said. "If you start growing a field and then you ran out of water, you'd be in pretty bad shape."

Rice fields need to be flooded with between 3 and 5 inches of water, which adds up to more than a million gallons an acre.

"You certainly feel vulnerable, because so much of what we're able to do depends on how much water is stored in Lake Oroville," Rystrom told KTVU.

Rice is a $5 billion business in California. Most California rice is consumed here in the U.S., but about a third of it is exported to Japan, South Korea and other countries where it's in high demand.

"This is a rice that's proven to be one of the highest quality medium grains in the world," said Rystrom.

Craig Compton runs a flying business that relies on rice growers and other farmers.

"Agriculture is huge," he told KTVU. "Not only out here, but exporting at the docks. And everybody is related or has some stake in agriculture in California."

Compton says the drought is not only hurting farmers, but businesses like his that rely on agriculture.

"Well, it's off a little bit. We're feeling it probably somewhere between 15 and 20 percent is what I'm thinking," he said.

Compton says if rice farmers lose their water, small farm communities like Richvale in Butte County near the base of the Lake Oroville Dam could dry up.

"You could see maybe no rice planted and some of the permanent crops that we also treat, almonds and walnuts," said Compton. "We don't know when their wells run dry what's gonna happen there too. So it's going to get serious if we don't get some water."

And it's not just people who would suffer. 

Before it was enclosed by levees and dikes, the Sacramento River would flood every winter and create millions of acres of wetlands that were prime habitat for wildlife.

Dan Frisk manages the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge Complex near Willows in Glenn County. It's an area surrounded by rice fields.

"We used to have four to six million birds back then," he told KTVU. "We've lost about 95% of those natural wetlands."

Frisk says now there are only about 200,000 acres of state and federal wetlands set aside in the Sacramento Valley for wildlife, mostly birds. But there are half a million acres of rice fields, and those flooded lands play a key role in protecting wildlife.

"That water that's available and the residual rice that's available to these birds is very, very important," said Frisk.

He says the hundreds of thousands of ducks and geese and other birds risk getting botulism and avian cholera if they can't spread their territory beyond the refuge complex to rice fields.

"With smaller amounts of water for these birds to come down and forage and roost in the winter months, the likelihood of disease outbreak is occuring," Frisk told KTVU.

December rains helped save bird populations this winter. So for now the birds are surviving, as are the rice farmers.

But the future is uncertain. Craig Compton and others in California's rice fields tell KTVU they're hoping this is the last year of drought.

"It better be, or it's going to get very serious for everybody," said Compton.