The intensive rice cultivation area in northwestern Italy hosts the largest surface of rice paddies in Europe, and it is valued as a substantial habitat for aquatic biodiversity, with the paddies acting as a surrogate for the lost natural wetlands. The extent of submerged paddies strictly depends on crop management practices: in this framework, the recent diffusion of rice seeding in dry conditions has led to a reduction of flooded surfaces during spring and could have contributed to the observed decline of the populations of some waterbird species that exploit rice fields as foraging habitat. In order to test the existence and magnitude of a decreasing trend in the extent of submerged rice paddies during the rice-sowing period, MODIS remotely-sensed data were used to estimate the extent of the average flooded surface and the proportion of flooded rice fields in the years 2000–2016 during the nesting period of waterbirds. A general reduction of flooded rice fields during the rice-sowing season was observed, averaging − 0.86 ± 0.20 % per year (p-value < 0.01). Overall, the loss in submerged surface area during the sowing season reached 44 % of the original extent in 2016, with a peak of 78 % in the sub-districts to the east of the Ticino River. Results highlight the usefulness of remote sensing data and techniques to map and monitor water dynamics within rice cropping systems. These techniques could be of key importance to analyze the effects at the regional scale of the recent increase of dry-seeded rice cultivations on watershed recharge and water runoff and to interpret the decline of breeding waterbirds via a loss of foraging habitat.