If you’ve flown over or into Sacramento in a normal winter, you’ve seen it — a veritable inland sea of water surrounding the city and its suburbs.  These are the rice fields of the Sacramento Valley, which sit in the lowest part of the valley along the numerous creeks and rivers that drain into it from the mountains to the north, east and west.

Rice growing in the Sacramento Valley is attracting some attention from the media lately due to the drought.  The average person driving past a rice field flooded with a foot of water wonders how it makes sense to grow a crop like this during a drought.  When they discover that a large chunk of the rice grown here is exported, they have a tendency to think “why should we Californians allow our water to be used this way”.  I cringe when I hear the words “We shouldn’t be growing rice in a desert”.

In fact, the Sacramento Valley is an ideal place to grow rice, like other well-known rice growing regions such as the Mississippi and the Mekong Deltas — it is a hot, flat area that is historically flooded frequently.  Rice is the only major food crop that tolerates — prefers, actually — growing in poorly drained soil.  The fact that it rains more in other areas during the growing season than it does here doesn’t really matter, because rice is almost always irrigated wherever it is grown.

It’s true that rice growing areas in the Sacramento Valley used to be covered with tules and oak trees.  So were most of the suburban areas north, west, and south of Sacramento.  The swamps were drained, levees were built to contain the river, and humans took over.

Unlike urban areas, however, rice fields don’t need to be kept dry in the winter and are often flooded all winter, serving an important role in controlling excessive river flows during storms.  They also play a critical role in providing habitat for the migratory birds and other animals that used to have the whole valley at their disposal.  It’s true they are not pristine wetlands, but they are also not subdivisions.  There’s no question which the birds prefer, just ask Audubon or another wildlife protection group.

It’s often said that during a drought our precious California water should only be used to grow “high value crops”, and that rice is not worth the cost in water.  But there is no other crop that will grow on most of the soil in the area, which has a hard layer under it that actually keeps the water from draining.  Meanwhile, for decades rice growers have been working with environmental groups to provide better habitat by using more water and keeping their fields flooded for longer.  The rice they grow may be “low value”, but what about the wildlife?  The Lundbergs, who produce mostly organic rice, have some great resources on their website explaining this in more detail.

Our state could decide to buy up the millions of acres of private land that are currently planted in rice and turn them back into wildlife habitat — in fact it has already done so with thousands of acres deemed especially important.  But that would cost hundreds of billions of dollars, and the resulting refuges would have to be staffed with public employees for eternity.  Those refuges would also need just as much water.

Rice farmers manage their own lands, providing plenty of habitat in exchange for whatever profit they are able to make.  This is a win-win compromise, a pragmatic solution that preserves open space, protects wildlife, and produces food for humans.  And every time you eat California rice you are contributing to its success.

Disclaimer: Terra Firma doesn’t grow any rice, so I have no conflict of interest on this subject.  But it does pain me to see one of the most sustainable parts of agriculture in Northern California so poorly understood.