Guest Commentary: Celebrating the Completion of the Gray Lodge Wildlife Area Water Supply Improvement Project

Wednesday, Nov 8th, 2023

Remarks by Jeff McCreary, Ducks Unlimited Western Region
November 3, 2023 at Gray Lodge Wildlife Area

It was just a short time ago it seems when many of us were right here celebrating the kick off of this incredible project.  Now we are back here celebrating its completion. Why, might you ask, are we having all these parties? Well, celebration is important because wetland conservation is hard work. And indeed, this project is helping wetlands and this project was hard.  We expanded the canal right of way, we have rebuilt an active main line irrigation system, replaced, and upgraded bridge crossings, faced budget challenges, coordinated multiple contractors, we have tunneled under a railroad, and we have developed innovative environmental compliance strategies that successfully ensured the safety of hundreds of giant garter snakes, all for this special place: Gray Lodge Wildlife Area. Who knew that wetland conservation would involve so much?

Painting by Miles Hermann, 2017

Some additional context for this celebration is also important. We are here in the Central Valley, one of the most important areas for waterfowl and migratory birds in the Pacific Flyway and the entire world.  Gray Lodge Wildlife Area is one of the shining crown jewels of the Pacific Flyway, a place of legends for waterfowlers. Getting the #1 draw for opening day is a lifelong dream for the hundreds of hunters who packed the parking just two weeks ago and will pack it each weekend for the next three months. And this project completes a decades long effort to get Gray Lodge the water it is entitled to for wetland management, which will help make the people in that parking lot, all of us, and the more than 1 million waterfowl that annually use this place a happy bunch.

This project is somewhat of a capstone to decades of wetland conservation here at Gray Lodge where many partners have lent their shoulder to the wheel.  For DU’s part our role in leading the implementation of this final phase of the Gray Lodge Water Supply Project is fulfilling because together with the Department and the Wildlife Conversation Board over the last two decades we have built the internal water management infrastructure taking it from a collection of individual former farm fields into a cohered Wildlife Area so that now it can not only receive its full legally obligated water supply, but put it to maximum effectiveness. All told just that work and this project total nearly $65M of investment, that is not including much other work done here by others nor the first phase of this project.  And Gray Lodge is worthy of the $100M of conservation investment made here.

Gray Lodge plays an integral role in supporting the millions of birds that winter in the Central Valley. And it does so amidst a vibrant agricultural landscape.  This project benefited both wetlands and agriculture.  Sacramento Valley rice and wetlands work together to provide our birds the food they need to return to breeding grounds and come back next year in good condition and greater numbers.

The water these habitats need for this comes from the same place through the same canals operated by the same people.  Gray Lodge could not be the jewel it is without the Bureau of Reclamation, Natural Resources Agency, the Department of Fish and Wildlife, and Biggs-West Gridley all grinding away together at the conservation wheel to make this a truly multi beneficial project.

Yet, it is fair to say that perhaps the hardest work was done by those on the ground, and for this project there are many who are to be commended for all the conservation grit they have milled over the last six years. By the numbers the sack of conservation flour this project produced looks like this:

  • 6 Years to completion:
  • $52 million
  • 17 Contractors and consultants
  • 5 1/2 Miles of canal improvements
  • 32 landowners coordinated with
  • 8 County Road and other bridges raised
  • 7 Large water control structures
  • 45 Farm-field water control structures
  • 1 tunnel under a railroad

Without a team a project does not happen.Our team includes the contractors, consultants, and our adjacent landowners – not just the speakers here.Without the support of our amazing team working to find a way to make this project happen on time and on budget, we would not be here celebrating. So, with great risk of omitting key people, thank you to:

  • Bureau of Reclamation:  Pam Taber, Sean Frishce, Garrett Reim
  • Biggs-West Gridley Water District: Danny Robinson, Gene Massa, and the Board of Directors
  • California Department of Fish and Wildlife: Andy Atkinson, Tim Hermanson, Dave Van Baren
  • US Fish and Wildlife Service: Sam Sosa
  • Ducks Unlimited: Vince Thompson, John Ranlett, Scott Herringer, Meghan Patrick, and Virginia Getz
  • Contractors: Odin, Gateway Pacific, Mcquire&Hester, Moss Ag, Nada Pacific, P31, River Partners, RND, and Syblon Reid
  • Consultants: Provost and Pritchard Engineering (Danny Kerns and Randy Hopkins), Swaim Biological (Jeff Mitchell, Eric Britt), Davids engineering, Mid-pacific engineering, Gannett Fleming, Bennett Trenchless, Wave, and John Calton, Eric Hansen, Kyle Hughes,

And thank you to all of us gathered here because all Californian’s have financial skin in this project’s funding.

And so, I leave you with this: As California adapts to a changing climate the hard work of this and other similar partnerships is more important than ever with collaboration remaining critical. As we work together building our future, we must ensure that the benefits we produce do not come at the sacrifice of one use for another, and like this project find and create multi-beneficial solutions to the problems of today.  Ducks Unlimited is proud to be a partner on this amazing team for this amazing place.  And we look forward to partnering for a better and brighter future for Gray Lodge, California, and the Pacific Flyway.



Clockwise: Chuck Bonham – CA Dept. of Fish & Wildlife, Jeff McCreary – Ducks Unlimited, Ernest Conant – US Bureau of Reclamation, Danny Robinson – Biggs-West Gridley Water District

About the Project

On November 3, the California Natural Resources Agency, California Department of Fish and Wildlife, the Bureau of Reclamation, Biggs-West Gridley Water District and Ducks Unlimited (DU) celebrated the completion of a six-year, $52 million water infrastructure upgrade at the Gray Lodge Wildlife Area. One of California’s most spectacular wildlife areas now has a secure water supply, thanks to this recently completed project. Construction recently wrapped up on 5 1/2 miles of upgrades to the canals that ship water from the Thermalito Afterbay to the Gray Lodge Wildlife Area near Gridley. The work included replacing five county road bridges, seven large water-control structures, three farm bridges and 45 structures that move water into farm fields.

Duck hunters, birders and other visitors already are seeing the value of those improvements. Last year, in the final stages of California’s historic multiyear drought, Gray Lodge was only able to irrigate about 300 acres of season wetlands. This summer, Gray Lodge was able to irrigate approximately 3,000 acres of seasonal wetlands and has been able to move water on and off the landscape in the spring and summer to stimulate native plant growth and produce the natural food ducks, geese and shorebirds need when they show up at Gray Lodge hungry during their fall and winter migrations. The Gray Lodge Water Supply Improvement Project was funded with Proposition 1 grant monies with most of the work on the ground carried out and overseen by DU.

Not only does the project help the region’s farmers; it ensures there is a steady supply of water for the millions of birds and other wildlife that rely on the wetlands that make up this stunningly beautiful 9,100-acre wildlife area. More than 100,000 people visit Gray Lodge each year. The project ensures a reliable, consistent supply of water to Gray Lodge and the millions of birds and other wildlife that rely on it while no longer impacting or impeding water deliveries to neighboring farms, even in dry years.


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