Fish Food Program

Program Overview

The wetlands of the Sacramento Valley once helped support the largest Chinook Salmon populations in California. Today, rice fields occupy much of the former floodplain.  For more than three decades, Sacramento Valley rice fields have been managed to provide high quality wetland habitat for waterbirds.  Winter-flooding of rice fields has played a major role in recovering abundant populations of migratory waterbirds using the Pacific Flyway. Now, Sacramento Valley rice agriculture has the opportunity to participate in expanding the management of their winter water to help recover imperiled fish populations as well.

The Fish Food program is a winter water management practice that helps reconnect juvenile salmon migrating down the food-scarce Sacramento River with the abundant food web resources produced in floodplain wetlands such as winter-flooded rice fields, wildlife refuges and duck clubs. As winter-flooding decomposes vegetation, an abundance of aquatic invertebrates (bugs) develops rapidly in floodplain waters. A month or so after being flooded, fields are teeming with fish food. Draining this bug-rich water back to the river or other fish-bearing stream channels can substantially increase juvenile salmon growth rates.  New data shows that a vast majority of Winter Run Chinook Salmon that return to successfully spawn as adults ate floodplain food resources when they were juveniles.

Program Details

  • Application period: Monday, August 14 to Sunday, September 10, 2023
  • Flood season: October – April
  • Target water depth: 10 inches
  • Minimum flood duration: 3 weeks
  • Multiple flood/drain cycles possible
  • Concurrent enrollment with NRCS and CWRHIP allowed


Before the Central Valley was leveed, drained, and developed, food webs produced on over four million acres of seasonally inundated floodplain supported robust fish and wildlife populations. Over the last century and a half, development—primarily for agriculture and flood control—has cut off 95% of wetlands from Central Valley rivers, effectively starving river ecosystems of the foundation of the aquatic food web: the solar energy captured by plants and algae on floodplains and made available to aquatic food webs during seasonal flooding.

California’s native fish populations are in dramatic decline. The Fish Food program seeks to help recover fish populations by reconnecting the Sacramento River to productive floodplain food webs.  Using managed wetlands and flooded rice fields (surrogate wetlands) and irrigation/flood control infrastructure to export floodplain food resources to the river has proved to be both operationally feasible and an ecologically impactful way to reconcile flood-protected farm land and fish populations. The Fish Food program mimics the natural flood patterns (timing and duration) of pre-development floodplains to which native salmon populations are adapted.

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