‘Farming wildlife’

Grant-funded project set to provide reliable water to Gray Lodge Wildlife Area

Andy Atkinson, the longtime manager of Gray Lodge Wildlife Area, is a senior environmental scientist with California Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Andy Atkinson, the longtime manager of Gray Lodge Wildlife Area, is a senior environmental scientist with California Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Photo by Howard Hardee

As manager of the Gray Lodge Wildlife Area, Andy Atkinson talks enthusiastically about providing habitat for animals such as giant garter snakes, ground squirrels and all sorts of birds—hawks, herons, cranes, geese and even the occasional bald eagle. He takes a different tone, though, when it comes to beavers: “Not my favorite animal.”

That’s because Atkinson and other employees of the California Department of Fish and Wildlife have to keep water flowing throughout the wetlands, but beavers have different designs. For example, Gray Lodge staff recently lowered water levels in several canals in anticipation of autumn rains, prompting beavers to block drainage pipes with mud, brush and timber to prevent diversions from the waterways they depend on. It fell on habitat assistant Chris Stanfield to find and unplug the pipes.

“The beavers work all night and then he works all day,” Atkinson said.

During a recent visit to Gray Lodge, which is southwest of Gridley, Atkinson took the CN&R on a three-hour tour of the wildlife area in his dusty pick-up truck. Driving along dirt roads and canals—some built toward the end of the Great Depression—he stopped frequently to point out natural wonders and wildlife, including a black-tailed buck and a doe hiding in tall grass before bounding off together.

He explained that the dozens of canals and drainage ditches crisscrossing the 9,200-acre area are vitally important. Most of the plants and animals at Gray Lodge depend on water delivered by man-made structures, especially the migratory ducks and geese that make it a go-to destination for bird watchers. In other words, the area’s water infrastructure is something like an artificial life-support; Atkinson calls it “farming wildlife.” And that’s why a recently announced grant of up to $54.5 million awarded by the California Natural Resources Agency to the Gray Lodge Wildlife Area Water Supply Project is a big win for waterfowl.

Prior to European settlement, the Central Valley was composed mostly of wetlands, but nearly all have been drained for agricultural and urban development. Now only postage-stamp remnants of saturated lands are scattered across the valley, including the Gray Lodge Wildlife Area. The once-natural wetlands are now entirely anthropogenic; heavily altered by people and dependent on water from Lake Oroville.

“We’re mimicking nature and adapting it to the restraints that we have,” Atkinson said.

The wildlife area still offers a glimpse of something similar to what Central California looked like more than 150 years ago, and one thing hasn’t changed: Gray Lodge remains a critical stop on the Pacific Flyway, a north-south route for migratory birds and therefore a major attraction for hunters and bird watchers.

“There’s something to see here any time of year,” Atkinson said.

A black-tailed buck deer explores the wetlands.

Photo by Howard Hardee

Indeed, Gray Lodge is world-renowned for “night flights”—hundreds of thousands of birds taking wing against a backdrop of the sun setting over the Sutter Buttes. The CN&R caught a hint of the grandeur early in the morning as countless birds circled over the wetlands, and the viewing season is only getting started—Gray Lodge currently hosts about 700,000 migratory birds, but that number is expected to soar to between 1.6 million and 1.8 million this winter.

But all of the birds depend on water continuously flowing through the wetlands, Atkinson emphasized. “What happens when you don’t provide what a species needs?” he asked. “The species disappears.”

The crucial link is an 18-mile canal owned and managed by Biggs-West Gridley Water District that delivers water from Lake Oroville’s Thermalito Afterbay to Gray Lodge, supplying various farms and ranches along the way. The water is then dispersed throughout the wetlands via a series of old agricultural ditches and more recently constructed infrastructure. But sections of the main canal are in decidedly poor condition due to erosion, which has caused water to seep into surrounding farmland. Atkinson says it makes for an inefficient and unreliable water-delivery system for farmers and Gray Lodge alike.

The Natural Resources Agency funds are being awarded through its grant program under the federal Central Valley Project Improvement Act, which supports setting aside water for environmental purposes. (The Central Valley Project stores water in reservoirs such as Lake Oroville and delivers it to farms.) It will allow the Biggs-West Gridley Water District to bring the entire length of the canal up to modern engineering standards and provide a reliable source of water for wildlife year-round. According to Atkinson, Gray Lodge has used an average of 22,800 acre-feet of water annually since 2002, and he estimates that once the project is complete, it will be allocated roughly double that amount.

According to Sam Chiu, a spokesman for the California Natural Resources Agency, the final amount of funding will be determined through negotiations with Biggs-West Gridley Water District within the next six months. Then the agencies will seek to finalize construction permits and break ground.

The original 2,500-acre property—formerly the site of the Gray Lodge Gun Club—was purchased by the state in 1931 and converted into a wildlife area. Since then, only five managers have overseen the place, including Atkinson, who has lived on-site almost continuously since he was 18 years old.

Driving slowly along a canal, Atkinson reflected on why the water-supply grant is such a boost for the future of Gray Lodge.

“We want to protect it in perpetuity so future generations can experience the wetlands and the species that depend on them,” he said.

Then he saw somebody across the waterway. It turned out to be Stanfield, the habitat assistant, using a long pole to pry wood and brush from a drainage pipe.

“What’s your favorite animal?” Atkinson shouted from his window.

Stanfield laughed and replied, “Not the beaver.”