Bitter Loss in Battle for Water - CWA Magazine, Spring 2016

Hope for the Lower Klamath National Wildlife Refuge expired on Dec. 31.

The refuge, largely deprived of water since 2012, had one real opportunity for a guaranteed water supply: an agreement forged by the federal government, the states of California and Oregon, farmers and ranchers, fishermen, environmentalists and Indian tribes. It was called the Klamath Basin Restoration Agreement. Click here for the rest of the story.


Lower Klamath NWR Wetlands Completely Dry

The Klamath Basin [http://www.fws.gov/klamathbasinrefuges/] is the single most important staging area for waterfowl in the Pacific Flyway. An estimated 80 percent of Pacific Flyway waterfowl, representing one-quarter of the continental population, depend upon it for fall and spring staging during their annual migrations.  The Basin is also a regionally important waterfowl breeding area, and provides critical molting habitat for mallards and other birds during the summer months.

Even in wet years, it can be difficult for the Klamath Basin refuges to obtain all of the water they need. In 2013, however, the Lower Klamath National Wildlife Refuge suffered a complete cutoff of water since early spring. As a result, over 2 million ducks and geese arriving for their four-week annual spring staging event stayed only one week. The spring staging event is important to waterfowl because the birds use it to put on necessary body fat before their long migration to breeding grounds in the Prairie Pothole region and other points north.

By the late summer of 2013, Lower Klamath wetlands were completely dry for only the second time in 80 years.  There is a strong possibility that drought conditions will also prevail during the 2013 fall staging event, additionally affecting the hunting season on the refuges. A general shortage of water throughout the Klamath Basin is made worse by the fact that the refuges have the lowest priority for water in the Basin compared with threatened and endangered fish species, tribal water rights and agriculture.

Over the last couple years, the lack of water on the refuges has also exacerbated outbreaks of avian cholera and avian botulism due to overcrowding on the remaining available wetlands. In the spring of 2012, an estimated 10,000 to 20,000 ducks and geese perished from avian cholera.  This summer, an outbreak of avian botulism on the Tule Lake National Wildlife Refuge has already killed thousands of mallards and other birds.


The Klamath Basin Water Crisis

The Klamath Basin has suffered an ongoing water crisis since 2001, when water was shut off to irrigators in the Klamath Project to maintain high water levels for endangered Lost River and shortnose sucker in Upper Klamath Lake. Mandatory flow levels in the Klamath River for salmon also restrict water deliveries. The crisis has continued in the years since (article in Western Water Magazine, videos, Aquapedia entry on the Klamath Basin) with fall waterfowl population surveys showing a steady decline in waterfowl use of the Basin.

In the overall allocation of water in the Klamath Basin, the national wildlife refuges have the lowest priority for water and are the most likely to go dry when drought strikes. In 2011, even though precipitation in the region was higher than normal, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation was forced to completely shut off water deliveries to Klamath Refuge Complex wetlands and roughly 200,000 acres of irrigated agriculture. Furthermore, the cost of electricity for moving water has increased 400 percent since 2006, which has made it more difficult for the complex to flood its wetlands even when water is available. (CWA magazine article)

What CWA Is Doing To Conserve Klamath Basin Waterfowl Populations

In the fall of 2010, CWA successfully worked with a number of other conservation organizations to urge the Bureau of Reclamation to provide an emergency allocation of water to the Lower Klamath National Wildlife Refuge.  For the next two years, we also supported the annual delivery of some 20,000 acre-feet of water via a Memorandum of Agreement between the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Bureau of Reclamation.  In addition, we have held numerous meetings with the Bureau of Reclamation to highlight the effects of the water crisis on Pacific Flyway waterfowl populations and discuss opportunities to secure additional water for Lower Klamath. (2013 CWA magazine article)

More recently, CWA sent a letter to U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Oregon, requesting that he lead an effort in Congress to:

1. Expand the Klamath Project’s stated purposes to include Lower Klamath and Tule Lake national wildlife refuges, which would give them greater priority for water deliveries for wetland purposes.

2 . Implement the Kuchel Act, Klamath Project, National Wildlife Refuge System Improvement Act and other applicable laws and policies on the Klamath refuges with increased emphasis on irrigating agricultural crops that are wildlife-friendly, such as wheat and barley, and greater use of the “Walking Wetlands” practice whereby wetlands are inserted into commercial crop rotations.

3. Provide necessary funding to address the Klamath Refuges’ annual water pumping expenses.

4.Implement the Endangered Species Act in a more balanced manner and make it more reflective of ecosystem-based goals and objectives, rather than a single-species management approach, to ensure that non-listed species are not adversely affected by Endangered Species Act-related mandates. 

Since 2010, CWA has also been working with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Bureau of Reclamation in building infrastructure needed to flood large blocks of farmland along the edge of the Tule Lake National Wildlife Refuge, thus providing additional wetland acreage on the refuge.  By the end of 2013, these Walking Wetlands will result in an additional 1,400 acres of wetland habitat to hunters and wildlife at the Tule Lake National Wildlife Refuge.   

The outcome of these projects has proved to be beneficial to wildlife and farmers alike within the Klamath Basin.  Projects have allowed for the flooding and management of wetland habitat, while still providing flexibility for wildlife-friendly farming on a rotational basis.  Flooded acreage at Tule Lake, where water is more likely to be delivered to wetland habitat due to adequate water delivery infrastructure, provides excellent shallow-water habitat and feed for migrating waterfowl.  Wetland acreage, which is then farmed, produces robust crops without the use of fertilizers and chemicals due to the increased nutrient loads within the soil. In many cases the crops produced are able to be designated as organic. 

This innovative program is an example of how wetland habitat can benefit both wildlife and the agricultural community.  Look for additional hunting opportunities this fall on the Walking Wetland habitat restored at Tule Lake.


How you can help

CWA is asking members to contact their representatives in Congress and the Obama administration and ask them to help solve the crisis in the Klamath Basin, and to ask fellow waterfowlers and conservationists to do the same – all migratory birds in the Pacific Flyway need your help.

To find the names and addresses of your elected representatives, go to votesmart.org.



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