Money available for wetland owners, applications closing soon

May 31, 2024
Jesse Vad, SJV Water
by Jesse Vad, SJV Water
Aerial view of wetlands. SOURCE: Department of Water Resources
Jesse Vad, SJV Water
Jesse Vad, SJV Water

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There’s a new opportunity for private wetland owners to make money from their land. The BirdReturns program pays wetland owners to flood their land and provide habitat for birds in the Central Valley. The program offers seasonal participation and is currently accepting applications for fall participation. Applications close on June 9. 

The program is funded through a $15 million grant from the California Department of Fish and Wildlife which will keep the program running through 2026. 

The program, “aims to fill in all the other gaps throughout the rest of the year when, in the natural cycle, there would be habitat for birds,” said Ashley Seufzer, senior project coordinator for Audubon California. 

This is the second year of the fall program. In the past, there have been participating landowners in the San Joaquin Valley but the number changes every season, said Seufzer. 

The application is a reverse auction system, meaning applicants submit a price per acre for how much they’d like to be paid for their land to be enrolled in the program. 

Seufzer said she cannot disclose how much participants have been paid because it could influence bids. 

In the fall of 2023 there were 5,500 acres enrolled in the program. This fall, the program is aiming for 35,000 acres. Last year’s program rolled out immediately after receiving the grant which is partly why there was a lower number. 

This year’s goal is based off the nonprofit Central Valley Joint Venture’s bird needs targets, said Seufzer. 

The 35,000-acre goal is in conjunction with the BirdReturns farmland program, which uses farmland to create “surrogate” wetland habitat, said Seufzer. 

Wetland owners may have to do a bit of work to prepare their land for the program, although it’s often work they are already doing, said Seufzer. 

Birds need open habitat, so program staff want no more than 50% vegetation on wetlands. Then it’s just a matter of flooding the land. 

“Everyone has their specific management. So we try not to tell them too much of what to do,” said Seufzer. “But we do have some guidelines of what we’re looking for with optimal habitat.”

BirdReturns doesn’t typically do a program during the winter. But in drought years, staff are prepared to enroll participants in the winter to help incentivize keeping wetlands flooded since it is even more essential during the winter, she said. 

“The people that participate really have a great time with it,” said Seufzer. “And we have these people come back year after year.”

Jesse Vad, SJV Water

SJV Water is an independent, nonprofit news site dedicated to covering water in the San Joaquin Valley. Get inside access to SJV Water by becoming a member.


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