The Conservation Column
By Juliet Grable
The Crisis in the Klamath Basin
Last month I attended the annual Winter Wings Festival in Klamath Falls. This year, event planners revamped the festival’s programming to focus on the drought and the crisis in the Klamath refuges.
The Basin is alarmingly dry, and birds are scarce. Last fall, many migrating birds skipped the Klamath Refuges altogether and were spotted in California refuges weeks ahead of schedule.
That birds are passing over what used to be the most significant wetlands complex on the Pacific Flyway should alarm us all. This is not simply an effect of the ongoing drought, said Klamath Basin Refuge Complex Supervisory Biologist John Vradenburg, who talked about the situation in the Klamath Refuges Friday afternoon. “Everyone in the basin is suffering the effects of decisions that were made 100 years ago.”
A talk and tour of the Klamath Irrigation Project, led by Klamath County Museum Director Todd Kepple, helped convey the magnitude of changes wrought in the Klamath Basin since the turn of the 20th century.
Ninety-five percent of the Klamath Basin’s permanent wetlands and 75% of its seasonal wetlands have been lost. Much of the acreage has been converted to farmland, and water is managed through a complex series of canals, many of which are over 100 years old. The farms are a legacy of the 1862 Homestead Act and the 1902 New-lands Reclamation Act, which directed the federal government to “reclaim” desert and “swamp lands” in the arid West for farming. Many recipients of the parcels were World War I veterans.
Lower Klamath Lake, a vast wetland which once straddled the Oregon-California border, has long been cut off by a raised railroad. Upper Klamath Lake, stripped of the fringe of wetlands which once absorbed phosphorus and other nutrients, suffers from chronic degraded water quality.
Climate change and overallocation of water are worsening the crisis, says Vradenburg. “We are desertifying at a rapid rate,” he said, adding that we are now facing ecosystem collapse in the Klamath Basin.
Vradenburg stressed that the enormous loss of wetlands, so important for “hydrological resiliency,” lies at the heart of the crisis. In his view, we must confront this fact if we have any hope of coming together and moving forward with sound restoration and conservation.
Vradenburg mentioned several ongoing restoration efforts by the Klamath Tribes, The Nature Conservancy, and others. Congress, through the Infrastructure Bill, has allocated $162 million for restoration projects in the Klamath Basin. Let’s hope stakeholders can get together and make good things happen.
Fortunately, Vradenburg’s talk was followed by a pair of more hopeful presentations:
Lakeside Farms: Restoration with Multiple Benefits
Karl Wenner is one of the owners of Lakeside Farms, a 400-acre operation that abuts Upper Klamath Lake just north of Klamath Falls. Wenner leases the land to barley and potato farmers. Last year, he partnered with a consortium of federal and state agencies and the Klamath Watershed Partnership to institute a restoration project that was designed to create bird habitat, improve water quality, and provide critical nursery ponds for C’waam and Koptu, two species of endangered suckers that inhabit the Upper Klamath Basin. The suckers are reproducing, but young fish are not surviving, likely due to a combination of factors, including poor water quality, predation, and com-petition from invasive fish species.
The project uses a 70-acre treatment wetland to filter nutrients (mainly phosphorus) from water pumped from flood-ed fields in spring. The wetland also provides bird habitat—shortly after it was completed, Wenner captured video footage of thousands of ducks alighting there. Two spring-fed ponds provide nursery habitat for young wild suckers. The suckers will remain in the ponds for a couple of years before being released into Upper Klamath Lake. The hope is that more of them will survive once they are released.
Wenner believes this project could and should be used as a model across the basin. Here’s a link to Alex Schwartz’s article about the project, which appeared in the Herald & News late last year.
Securing Water Rights for the Lower Klamath Refuge
In total the Klamath Basin NWR Complex consists of six refuges in southern Oregon and Northern California. Lower Klamath National Wildlife Refuge, established in 1908, was the first waterfowl refuge in the United States. But Lower Klamath NWR is last in line for water; ironically, when farmers are cut off from irrigation water, so too is the refuge. In 2020, over 60,000 birds died from avian botulism; a similar situation was avoided last year when refuge managers managed what little water there was to avoid creating the shallow stagnant pools that favor pathogens.
Mark Hennelly, vice president of advocacy for the California Waterfowl Association, discussed his organization’s strategy to procure water rights for the Lower Klamath NWR from willing landowners in the Wood River Valley. So far, they have procured one water right, and while it only amounts to 3,500 acre-feet, it was the only water delivery to the refuge last year, and it represents a test case for other purchases.
To learn more, visit CWA’s dedicated page on the Lower Klamath NWR.
Dam Removal on Schedule
There was a bit of good news last week. The Federal Energy Regulatory Agency, or FERC, has issued the draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for the license transfer and decommissioning of four Klamath River dams. A public comment period has opened; individuals and organizations have until April 18 to submit comments. FERC will then release a final EIS. This timely issuance should keep dam removal on schedule. The drawdowns of the dams are slated to begin in January of 2023, and deconstruction will hopefully happen that summer. Dam removal will open up hundreds of miles of salmon habitat and will benefit birds and fish in the Upper Klamath Basin by improving water quality downstream.