Double duty

A wetland area at Stone Lakes National Wildlife Refuge serves as habitat for waterfowl and space for flood water management in California’s Central Valley. “This refuge is able to meet the floodwater retention and recreation needs of the community, while enabling the Service to conserve and manage winter habitat for migratory birds,” said Bart McDermott, refuge manager. Credit: Rebecca Fabbri/USFWS

Central Valley refuge provides water infrastructure and waterfowl habitat

By Meghan Snow
January 4, 2018

About 20 minutes south of Sacramento, Stone Lakes National Wildlife Refuge is divided by a freeway and surrounded by farmland. Its location was not one of happenstance, nor was it solely based on the need for habitat for a specific species.

Stone Lakes National Wildlife Refuge, located off I-5, is considered an urban refuge given its proximity to Sacramento. Credit: Meghan Snow/USFWS

It was a strategic decision made over the course of three decades to help manage flood waters in California’s Central Valley. Just over 6,500 acres in size, Stone Lakes  contains three natural, shallow lakes and a series of sloughs that are within the 100-year floodplain of the Sacramento Delta. The refuge is flanked by dairy farms and vineyards to the west and a growing urban community to the east.

“In the 1960s, the Army Corps of Engineers recognized this area as a key floodwater retention basin and determined that homes should not be built here,” said Bart McDermott, manager of the Stone Lakes refuge. As time went on, there was also a growing interest in preserving the lakes and grasslands in a natural state for wildlife habitat and the public to enjoy. 

“This refuge is able to meet the floodwater retention and recreation needs of the community, while enabling the Service to conserve and manage winter habitat for migratory birds,” said McDermott. In the summer, the Lambert Gate at the south end of the refuge is opened to allow water from the Delta to flow into the Stone Lakes Basin.

The refuge uses pumps, like the one shown here, to flood wetlands, irrigating pastures for cattle and managing grassland habitat for other wildlife. Credit: Rebecca Fabbri/USFWS

Farmers use a series of pumps along the sloughs that wind through the refuge to water their crops. The refuge also pumps water to flood wetlands and irrigate pastures for cattle that are used to manage grassland habitat. In the fall, the gate is closed to prevent any tidal influence from rising Delta waters from flowing into the refuge.

“As the nearby community has grown and farmland continues to shrink, there is less ground to absorb the rainfall,” said McDermott. “Creeks bordering these communities swell when rainstorms hit and deliver large quantities of water into the refuge’s lakes and sloughs.”

“The refuge location is perfect for supporting migratory birds in the fall and winter," said Bart McDermott, Stone Lakes' refuge manager.  He and other refuge staff monitor the pumps throughout the refuge. Credit: Rebecca Fabbri/USFWS

Having natural, open space to capture winter runoff is critical, especially during winters like this last one.

“During this past winter when the Delta was flooding, more than 70 percent of the refuge lands were completely inundated with water,” recalled McDermott. "The water was trying to find a place to go, and all it could do is creep out onto the uplands – the whole area became one big lake!”

One of the levees along the refuge started leaking in early January which threatened farmland, a few homes and Interstate 5, a major transportation corridor through the state.

Fortunately, the local reclamation district located the leak and coordinated with the refuge staff to make repairs and prevented what could have become a catastrophe. The flooding, however, brought a range of other issues to the refuge.

Farmers use a series of pumps along the sloughs that wind through the refuge to water their crops. Credit: Rebecca Fabbri/USFWS

Rodents tried to ride out the storm in the refuge’s equipment and chewed through electrical wiring. Seeds from invasive plants were carried into new areas of the refuge by the flood waters; and as the waters receded, algal blooms created toxic water conditions that forced the refuge to cancel its canoe and kayaking program that was scheduled for the summer.

“It has taken us several months to bounce back after the winter,” said McDermott. “Roads, trails and levees had to be repaired, the hunt check station had to be rebuilt, and the staff has had to spend more time mowing and treating invasive weeds. We’re thankful that winters like this past one only come around every decade.”

“It has taken us several months to bounce back after the winter. Roads, trails and levees had to be repaired, the hunt check station had to be rebuilt, and the staff has had to spend more time mowing and treating invasive weeds,” said Bart McDermott, refuge manager. Credit: Rebecca Fabbri/USFWS

On the bright side, the big winter provided an ample snowpack which sustained the river flow for farmers to grow crops and wetland managers to support migratory birds.

“The refuge location is perfect for supporting migratory birds in the fall and winter. The surrounding farms serve as the ‘restaurant’ for the birds where they forage for waist grains and grubs, while the refuge is like their ‘bedroom’ where they roost in the wetlands at night,” explained McDermott.

In November, the refuge opened its twelfth waterfowl hunting season. This year, refuge volunteers had to sift through more than 5,000 applications before issuing 280 hunting reservations.

Hunters come from places as close as Elk Grove and from as far as the Bay Area. Beyond hunting, the refuge attracts visitors who come to birdwatch, walk the trails and paddle through the sloughs and lake in the spring and summer. Given its proximity to urban communities, the refuge hosts school groups that wish to experience nature hands-on.

The refuge location is perfect for supporting migratory birds in the fall and winter such as Canadian geese. The surrounding farms serve as the ‘restaurant’ for the birds where they forage for grubs and waist grains, while the refuge is like their ‘bedroom’ where they roost in the wetlands at night. Credit: Rebecca Fabbri/USFWS

Each year, more than 1,500 students and teachers visit the refuge to help plant trees and shrubs while learning about wetland habitat, migratory birds and native insects.

Amy Hopperstad, visitor services manager, points out milkweed growing at the refuge, that supports monarch butterfly populations. Credit: Meghan Snow/USFWS

“This year, we had milkweed growing on the refuge, which is the main food source for monarch caterpillars,” said Amy Hopperstad, visitor services manager at the refuge. “Students helped us pick and spread the milkweed seeds. For some students, this is their first hands-on experience with nature.”

An on-site amphitheater enables refuge staff to teach large groups, but it also serves as a gathering point for local groups to meet and get in touch with nature.

A one-mile paved trail system winds through wetlands, giving visitors of all abilities an up-close look at birds and animals that call this area home.

If you’re lucky, you might spot a river otter or a tri-colored blackbird or see and hear sandhill cranes fly overhead.

Sandhill cranes stopover at the refuge during migration, drawing in birdwatchers from around the world and delighting visitors with their unique calls. Credit: Justine Belson/USFWS

“This area around the headquarters used to be a vineyard. We had to pull out all the vines and then start building the wetland from scratch. It takes a lot of work to manage the refuge so it attracts wildlife, serves as flood protection and functions as a space for community outdoor recreation,” explained Hopperstad.

In late November, McDermott turned off a pump that finally filled a large seasonal wetland used by migratory birds. White pelicans and sandhill cranes loafed about in the flooded wetland areas.

With the winter season just starting again in California, Stone Lakes is ready for the runoff, and so are the birds.

Native, pollinator-friendly plants located around the refuge attract bees and butterflies. Credit: Meghan Snow/USFWS

A pair of coot swim on a flooded section of the refuge. Coot are just one of many species of waterfowl that rest at Stone Lakes National Wildlife Refuge. The waterborne coot is one good reminder that not everything that floats is a duck. A close look at a coot—that small head, those scrawny legs—reveals a different kind of bird entirely. Their dark bodies and white faces are common sights in nearly any open water and they often mix with ducks, but they’re closer relatives of the gangly Sandhill crane. Although it swims like a duck, the American coot does not have webbed feet like a duck. Instead, each one of the coot’s long toes has broad lobes of skin that help it kick through the water. Credit: Rebecca Fabbri/USFWS

Story Photo

Meghan Snow

About the writer...

Meghan Snow is the congressional affairs specialist for the Pacific Southwest Region. An avid biker, runner and snowboarder, she brings her love for the outdoors to the office every day, promoting the Service's conservation work throughout the region.

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