MAMOU, La. – Water gurgling from a well is flooding Craig Gautreaux's rice and crawfish fields, turning the farm into a wetland for migratory birds whose usual Gulf of Mexico wintering grounds are threatened by the oil spill.
Across eight states, farmers such as Gautreaux are inundating fallow fields to provide an alternative for some of the tens of millions of ducks, geese and shorebirds that are beginning to make their way south on a flyway that stretches as far north as Alaska and Iceland.
"Hopefully, we can help," said Gautreaux, who has dedicated 762 acres about 90 miles inland from the Gulf to the project under a three-year, $132,441 contract that likely will cover his costs but provide little if any profit. "I want to keep the birds around."
Biologists fear the birds will arrive to spend winter at the Gulf barrier islands, shorelines and marshes only to find these habitats fouled and their food supply depleted.
Government officials hope to have 150,000 acres of manmade wetlands ready by Aug. 15, although they do not know how many birds will use it.
The federal government hasn't funded anything like this $20 million project before, but farmers and scientists are hopeful the program in the five Gulf states and Arkansas, Georgia and Missouri could work. They note that Gulf-bound birds often stop anyway at their farms, where rice and crawfish fields are already flooded for parts of each season.
"There's a sense of urgency here," said Kevin Norton, who heads the U.S. Department of Agriculture's conservation programs in Louisiana. If the oil causes major die-offs, he said, "that will ripple through the populations for years to come."
The program is so popular that Texas and Louisiana exhausted their initial funding within weeks and lobbied for more. Texas has now received nearly $6 million under the program and hopes to have all its contracts funded by Aug. 1.
Yet the scheme isn't likely to be a windfall for the farmers. It's designed to compensate them for pumping and holding the water, which can be expensive, without generating a profit.
The amount farmers are paid will depend on how much land they devote and the steps they take to make it suitable for birds.
Flooding will cost between $43 and $200 per acre, depending on factors such as water value in a particular area and the condition of the land, said Russell Castro, a biologist with the federal conservation service in Temple, Texas. Some farmers will have to build small levees or dikes.
"Anyone who buys a farm and runs it themselves, I guess you don't do it to get rich," said Grantt Guillory, 37, who raises crawfish and soybeans in southern Louisiana's Atchafalaya River watershed. "You get into it because you're somewhat of a steward to the environment. I care about these birds and I'm afraid the oil spill is going to devastate some of these species."
His grant application hasn't been accepted yet, but he's turning about 235 marshy acres into wetlands anyway, keeping the area submerged under six to 10 inches of water for a couple of months longer than usual.
Farmers typically rotate which fields they plant, leaving some fallow each year, and the ones being flooded for the birds are generally those out-of-use plots. In some cases, the extra flooding might take place before planting or after harvest.
Some farmers might choose to provide several inches of water and mudflats from July through October, an ideal habitat for shorebirds such as sandpipers and dowitchers. Shallow water on moist soils in August and September could attract early migrating waterfowl such as the blue-winged teal.
Deeper water would be needed from October through March for diving ducks, such as redheads and canvasbacks.
About 15 million ducks and geese migrate annually to Texas, Mississippi, Louisiana and Alabama, said Mike Brasher, a biologist with the Gulf Coast Joint Venture, a partnership among government, nonprofits and landowners for bird habitat preservation. When shorebirds are added, he said, the total could reach 50 million.
Their habitat has been diminishing for years because of sinking, erosion, hurricanes and pollution, said John Pitre, a wildlife biologist with the USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service. The oil spill just makes things worse.
Agencies involved with the new program "had wanted to do something like this before, but never had the funding," Pitre said.
Many birds that spend cold-weather months in the Gulf region had already flown north ahead of the spill, which was triggered by an April 20 rig explosion that killed 11 workers. But scientists say the danger will be waiting when they return — some as early as this month— even if the leak has been plugged.
Norton acknowledged that some species might not seek out the alternative habitat — especially those that instinctively return annually to the same places.
However, he said, if they make even a quick stopover in the newly developed habitat before continuing to the Gulf, they may go back after finding their former haunts polluted.
The piping plover, a shorebird on the federal endangered species list, spends winters nibbling tiny invertebrates on sandy Southern beaches and probably won't be attracted to the new habitats at first, said biologist Francie Cuthbert of the University of Minnesota. But if the oil kills off their usual food supply, some might fly inland.
Other birds, such as the common loon of the Great Lakes region, prefer open-water habitat and probably will head directly for the Gulf and Atlantic coasts, said Joe Kaplan, a biologist in Michigan's Upper Peninsula.
James Gentz, a rice farmer in Winnie, Texas on the Gulf coast, has signed two contracts for about $84,000 to keep 720 of his 1,200 acres flooded through March 31.
Keeping fields that would normally lie fallow this year flooded through the winter will be time-consuming, but Gentz believes he will turn a profit while helping the birds survive.
"For generations, they've been following a migratory pattern. Hopefully, if they get down south, they'll come back to where we're trying to help them," Gentz said.
Flesher reported from Opelousas, La.
(This version CORRECTS that concern is not about nesting sites, but about birds' winter habitats.)