I love a good Pareto improvement story

But then again, who doesn’t? In order to help migratory birds, rice farmers are being paid to keep their fields flooded for longer than they otherwise would:

The program, called BirdReturns, starts with data from eBird, the pioneering citizen science project that asks birders to record sightings on a smartphone app and send the information to the Cornell Lab of Ornithologyin upstate New York.

By crunching data from the Central Valley, eBird can generate maps showing where virtually every species congregates in the remaining wetlands. Then, by overlaying those maps on aerial views of existing surface water, it can determine where the birds’ need for habitat is greatest.

The BirdReturns program, financed by the Nature Conservancy, then pays rice farmers in the birds’ flight path to keep their fields flooded with irrigation water from the Sacramento River as migrating flocks arrive. The prices are determined by reverse auction, in which farmers bid for leases and the lowest bidder wins.

Farmers aren’t required to participate, so they’ll only do so if they think they’ll be better off accepting the payment and not drying their fields. Since prices are determined by reverse auction, the Nature Conservancy pays relatively less for the service. And presumably they are paying farmers only because “they” (that is, the people whose interests the Nature Conservancy represents) think it’s worth it. But does this program really have much affect? They’re still collecting and analyzing the data, but there are some promising initial results:

The project’s first season ended last month, as birds headed north from newly flooded fields. Researchers said all of the birds whose numbers they hoped to improve were seen on “pop up” wetlands — a temporary steppingstone for the birds’ journey north. This happened when the field would have ordinarily been drained, an indication that the approach was working. More analysis will be done this month.

What about effects on the market for rice?

In this first year, 10,000 acres (out of 500,000 devoted to rice farming in the Central Valley) owned by 40 farmers were flooded for four, six or eight weeks, at an average of 200 to 250 acres each. (Many farmers did not participate because of California’s drought.)

So only about 2% of acres participated in the program. And that’s just in the Central Valley, California. And generally, farmers still have time to dry out the fields for planting, so the effect on the rice market is probably negligible:

Even for farmers who have enough water, the program can require some careful calibration. “If we put our water on late, the fields might not dry out” in time for planting, said Doug Thomas, who grows sushi rice for Rue & Forsman Ranch near here and who took part in the program this year.

But he added that the compensation was better than adequate and that he liked the private-sector nature of the initiative.

And I like the way the program is described by a Nature Conservancy representative:

Dr. Hallstein, of the Nature Conservancy, said that at first it was a difficult to get farmers to make the shift, but that it helped when they thought of shorebird protection as just another crop, like rice.


Makes sense. Just think of helping migratory birds as one thing people are willing to pay farmers to do with their land. Producing rice is another. Agritourism might be another. Etc.