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The Lower Klamath National Wildlife Refuge – one of the Pacific Flyway’s critical waterfowl breeding, molting and migration staging areas –  is being starved of essential water supplies.

The refuge is last in line for water rights, and increasing amounts of water are being withheld from the refuge – held in Upper Klamath Lake or sent down the Klamath River – to help endangered fish species. Only it isn’t helping the fish, and meanwhile LKNWR is turning into a duck desert.

This is not just a Northeastern California issue – it affects waterfowl populations throughout the Pacific Flyway because LKNWR provides (when it has water) essential habitat at critical times in their life cycles. California mallards breed there in large numbers. Mallards and other ducks that breed throughout the state rely on the Basin to provide safe haven when they need to molt in late summer – a process that leaves them flightless for 30-60 days. And migrators rely on the refuge for rest and refueling during their migrations north and south each year.

California Waterfowl’s chief goals are to secure high-priority water rights for the refuge and to secure an agreement to distribute water equitably in the Klamath Basin. But as we work toward those goals, we continue to seek every possible drop of water we can get for the refuge in the meantime.

For a detailed explanation of the issue, please click here (article from Summer 2019 issue of California Waterfowl). For a look at Lower Klamath’s importance to the Pacific Flyway, and the impact of reduced water deliveries, please click here (PDF).

California Waterfowl is actively engaged in efforts to restore desperately needed water supplies to the nation’s first national wildlife refuge for waterfowl. Taking the lead on this is Director of Water Law and Policy Jeffrey Volberg, who can be reached at jvolberg@calwaterfowl.org or 916-217-5117.



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The latest on Lower Klamath

Bureau of Reclamation announces 5,400 acre feet for Klamath refuges

September 4, 2020 – The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation announced today that it is sending another 5,400 acre feet of water to the Tule Lake and Lower Klamath national wildlife refuges in an attempt to help address the horrific avian botulism outbreak. Click here to read the press release.

CWA supporters fund well-water pumping for LKNWR

September 3, 2020 – Well water is flowing into the Lower Klamath National Wildlife Refuge thanks to two generous donations from CWA supporters that will pay pumping costs from a well for one month. While the well’s capacity is limited, this water will help increase floodable acres in Unit 2 and help keep botulism from expanding there. It will also help maintain water levels in the unit, which will facilitate efficient movement of future water deliveries. The donors, who ponied up a combined $15,000, asked to remain anonymous, but CWA thanks them!

Well water is not enough to solve Lower Klamath’s problem, but we’re working to get every drop possible to the refuge while we continue to work toward our primary goals: acquiring high-priority water rights for the refuge and securing a comprehensive agreement to distribute water equitably in the Basin.

This is what botulism response looks like

CWA would like to thank Waterfowl Programs Supervisor Caroline Brady (shown in this video), the staff of the Klamath Basin National Wildlife Refuge Complex, Bird Ally X (water bird rehabbers) and others who have been involved in the heartbreaking work of picking up the dead and working to rescue the sick in the Basin’s worst botulism outbreak in anyone’s memory. As you can see from this video, it is an unpleasant and discouraging job, and we are grateful to everyone who’s doing all the hard work on the ground in the Basin.


This dead mallard shows why Klamath matters to the entire state

If you’d like to understand why water supply problems in the Klamath Basin are a problem for ALL California ducks, look no further than this hen, or rather what’s left of her. Hers is one of more than 20,000 bird carcasses found at the Klamath Basin refuges this summer as the worst botulism outbreak in memory rages. Botulism occurs naturally, but is exacerbated by water shortages at the refuges, which this year are both man-made and caused by drought.

Wildlife refuges battle devastating botulism outbreak, worsened by water shortages

August 23, 2020 – Klamath Basin refuges are having their worst botulism outbreak in memory. While the disease occurs naturally and appears just about every year, water shortages – whether naturally occurring or man-made – exacerbate outbreaks by crowding birds into smaller and smaller bodies of water.

California Waterfowl creates task force to fight for water-starved Lower Klamath NWR

August 12, 2020 – California Waterfowl has combined forces with key volunteers to create a Lower Klamath Refuge Task Force. Its mandate is to secure water rights for the embattled Lower Klamath National Wildlife Refuge, and restore the refuge to its former greatness and vital role in the Pacific Flyway.

‘Klamath water arrives, saving 50,000 ducklings from certain death’

July 24, 2020 – The San Francisco Chronicle featured a story today by Tom Stienstra about the recent water delivery to the Klamath Basin National Wildlife Refuge Complex.

Here are excerpts (non-subscribers will not be able to read the entire story):

“In a drought year for the Klamath Basin that has imperiled farmers, salmon and waterfowl, Interior Secretary David Bernhardt visited the region two weeks ago to meet with farmers in a nationally publicized visit. What is lesser known is that he also met privately with leadership of the California Waterfowl Association, who asked Bernhardt to deliver water to the refuge to help birds and wildlife survive, including waterfowl, bald eagles and white pelicans.”

“’The Klamath refuge is the heartbeat of the Pacific Flyway,’ said Rob Plath, a director with California Waterfowl. He said CWA would team with the Nature Conservancy and Audubon Society in a new push with farmers, irrigators, Native American tribes and the Department of the Interior to develop a new long-term water solution for the refuge.”

‘The kidney of the basin’

July 19, 2020 – How the Lower Klamath National Wildlife Refuge got to the sorry state it’s in, and how it’s affecting not only the migratory birds that depend on the refuge, but also downstream water quality. Click here to read the article in the Herald and News.

Water is flowing to LKNWR

July 16, 2020 – Water is flowing into the Lower Klamath National Wildlife Refuge today, thanks to the efforts of California Waterfowl. While the new water won’t meet all the refuge’s needs, it is enough to keep Unit 2 full this summer. That’s critical for the thousands of ducklings on the refuge that are still flightless. Without this water, it was likely many of these ducklings would have perished before developing flight feathers as existing water evaporated. Click here to read the story.

CWA meets with interior secretary in the Klamath Basin

July 9, 2020 – California Waterfowl and local farmers met with U.S. Secretary of Interior David Bernhardt, U.S. Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Brenda Burman, Rep. Doug La Malfa and Rep. Greg Walden about the water crisis in the Klamath Basin on July 9, stressing the need to maintain water levels in currently flooded wetlands at Lower Klamath National Wildlife Refuge to prevent the stranding of thousands of waterfowl broods and molting ducks. Click here to read the story.

LKNWR loses its only promised water for the year

July 1, 2020 – When the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation announced last month that farmers would be getting their full allocation of water for the year, allocation did not include water for the Lower Klamath National Wildlife Refuge. So this week, California Waterfowl delivered a letter to the Klamath Falls office of Bureau laying out options and requesting action to provide water to the refuge over the remainder of the summer and the fall. Click here to read the story.

Bureau of Reclamation restores promised water supply

June 9, 2020 – A little bit of good news for the Klamath Basin today out of the Bureau of Reclamation: The Bureau now plans to deliver the promised 140,000 acre feet to the Klamath Project.

This is great news for farmers, who were going to run out of water before their crops matured, but what does it mean for the water-starved Lower Klamath NWR?

Here’s CWA Director of Water Law and Policy Jeff Volberg’s assessment: “It may free up a water transfer of 11,000 acre-feet that the Bureau has been holding back since May. It may also result in the Drought Response Agency purchasing between 10,000 and 20,000 acre-feet for the refuge, most likely the former. If the refuge can get that water, they can at least keep Unit 2 flooded into the fall. That is 4,000 acres out of 54,000 acres, but it is better than the nothing they were appearing to get as of yesterday.”

Update: The Bureau announced on June 19 that water has begun flowing.

Klamath Project expected to shut off water by July – bad news for the refuge

May 8, 2020 – The Herald and News reported that the Klamath Project is likely to run out of water for farmers by July.

The article doesn’t mention the refuge, but here’s what our director of water law and policy, Jeff Volberg, had to say about this grim development:

“We just received this news Friday night. California Waterfowl has been working hard to improve the water supply for the Lower Klamath NWR, but when there is no water available, there is little we can do.

“We don’t know yet what this news means for the refuge, but we do know 2020 will be a very bad year for waterfowl at the Lower Klamath NWR.

“We will continue to work with the refuge management, the Bureau of Reclamation, and the local farmers to ensure the refuge gets what water is available this year, and we will continue to work on a long-term reliable water supply for the Lower Klamath NWR.”

Water users association warns of anticipated water shortfalls

April 21, 2020 – The Klamath Water Users Association issued an alert to members (click to read PDF) warning that 2020 will likely be the second worst year of water deliveries in four decades. “Unless there is a very large number of unirrigated acres, there is a great risk of running out of water altogether mid-season,” the alert said. Last year farmers rescued the Lower Klamath National Wildlife Refuge in the fall by sending unused water supplies to the refuge, but the water situation this year makes a repeat exceedingly unlikely. Irrigators expect toget 140,000 acre feet from the Klamath Project this year, which is enough to meet only about 40% of their need.

CWA asks feds to study impact of water plan on Lower Klamath NWR

April 21, 2020 – California Waterfowl, joined by four other waterfowl organizations, asked the Bureau of Reclamation last week to perform an Environmental Impact Statement to assess the impacts of reduced water supplies from the Klamath Project to the Lower Klamath National Wildlife Refuge. Click here to read more.

New settlement will restrict water available to Lower Klamath

March 31, 2020 – A new settlement will reduce water available to the Lower Klamath National Wildlife Refuge. But it also may provide an opportunity to advocate for the refuge on future water decisions. Click here to read more.

Update: Legal filing details devastating effects of withholding water from Lower Klamath

Feb. 20, 2020 – A judge is considering a request to send 50,000 acre feet of water from the Klamath Project down the Klamath River, and a legal filing by CWA details the devastating impacts of that loss of water two years ago. Click here to read more.

Update: an opening, bird counts and a letter from a congressman

Dec. 4, 2019 – There’s an opening to improve Lower Klamath’s water supply. Not a great one, but we’re going to do all we can with it. Read more about it, and other updates about issue, here.

Small victories: Water for the opener, money for pump repair

Oct. 3, 2019 – Four waterfowl hunting units at Lower Klamath have varying levels of water, which should provide some hunting opportunity this weekend for the Northeast Opener. And the refuge has secured funding to refurbish three pumps that can be used to flood Lower Klamath with well water – something CWA fought for. Click here for details.

Farmers to the rescue!

Sept. 16, 2019 – Farmers in the Klamath Basin have taken stock of their water needs and starting today they will be sending three times as much water to the Lower Klamath National Wildlife Refuge as they’d planned on two weeks ago, totaling about 25,000 acre feet.

What does that mean? In addition to Unit 2, which has had water through the summer, Unit 6A – a hunt unit – is halfway flooded, pumps are running to flood White Lake and Unit 3 is up next. While Unit 3 is a sanctuary, it supports dry field goose hunting in the Straits.

The shaded units of Lower Klamath NWR are flooded or flooding now. The background satellite imagery shows a very dry refuge in October 2018.

While this is nowhere near what should be flooded by now, this improves the situation for migrating ducks and geese, and provides some huntable water. Sept. 21-22 is Youth Hunt Weekend and the regular season starts Oct. 5. (See complete season dates here, or check out this poster with all waterfowl and upland dates, limits and shoot times.)

This generous gift from farmers in the area is a product of collaborative efforts among stakeholders in the region, in which California Waterfowl has been a vocal and steadfast advocate for the refuge. CWA will continue to fight for a long-term solution to stop the desertification of the nation’s first national wildlife refuge for waterfowl, and restore it to its position as a key staging, breeding and molting area for migratory birds in the Pacific Flyway.

Extra water delivery begins

Sept. 4, 2019 – The refuge began taking delivery of 50 cubic feet per second of water today. That delivery was available thanks to a cool and wet spring that delayed plantings and left the Klamath Project with extra water that it could divert to LKNWR.

Refuge staff are anticipating 3,000 acre feet of water delivered through the end of September, helping to maintain current objective levels for the wetlands.

Click here to read the press release.

Water levels dropping

Lower Klamath National Wildlife Refuge on July 25, 2019


Aug. 20, 2019 – Lower Klamath looks lush this summer thanks to incredible precipitation last winter and spring, and the refuge has received a small amount of water this spring and summer – about 60 acre feet a day – via a transfer of water rights.

This water was enough to maintain water levels in the Unit 2 permanent wetland until evaporation/transpiration rates began to increase with summer temperatures, but now water levels are dropping. The timing is not good: Late August is prime molting time, when waterfowl lose all of their flight feathers for up to 40 days. To remain safe during molt, they need water that doesn’t go away. Lack of sufficient molting habitat can be a huge limiter for California’s locally breeding waterfowl – primarily mallards, gadwall and cinnamon teal – creating a population bottleneck.

Letter to secretary of the interior

Interior Secretary David Bernhardt

July 30, 2019 – On July 30, CWA director (now chair of the board) Rocque Merlo and Vice President for Legislative Affairs and Public Policy Mark Hennelly hand-delivered a letter to Interior Secretary David Bernhardt. Click here to see a PDF of the letter.

The letter asks the secretary to throw out the biological opinions that govern operation of the Klamath Project. The biological opinions, which are prepared to protect endangered fish, cut off the Lower Klamath National Wildlife Refuge from a large part of its water supply. Without water, the refuge is in danger of turning from a very large wetland to a desert.

A wide array of organizations signed on to the letter, indicating broad-based support for the refuge and a clear recognition that its water woes affect the entire flyway. Signatories included Audubon California, the Black Brant Group, the Cal-Ore Wetlands and Waterfowl Council, Delta Waterfowl, Ducks Unlimited, the Grassland Water District, the Oregon Hunters Association, the Suisun Resource Conservation District and the Tulare Basin Wetlands Association.

The request to throw out the biological opinions is supported by local irrigators. The Yurok tribe on the Klamath River has filed suit to throw out the biological opinions, as well.

Coalition of the Willing

February 25, 2016 – Following the collapse of the Klamath Basin Restoration Agreement at the end of 2015, parties to that agreement began meeting anew to search for solutions to the water crisis that will actually help endangered fish species without strangling the Lower Klamath National Wildlife Refuge or throttling farmers’ water supplies.

CWA Director of Water Law and Policy Jeff Volberg has been participating in Coalition efforts, and we will report any significant outcomes. But because the issue is complex and involves competing interests, the process is slow.


CWA asks feds to study impact of water plan on Lower Klamath NWR (April 21, 2020)

Lower Klamath NWR update – legal filing details devastating effects of withholding water (Feb. 20, 2020)

Lower Klamath NWR update – biological opinions reopened, bird counts up, letter from U.S. Rep. LaMalfa (Dec. 4, 2019)

Lower Klamath NWR update – flooding status for opener, funding for pump repairs (Oct. 3, 2019)

Lower Klamath: Farmers to the rescue! (Sept. 16, 2019)

Klamath Farmers Pave the Way for Lower Klamath Refuge to Begin Receiving Klamath Project Water Allocation (Press release PDF, Sept. 5, 2019)

CRITICAL HUB: Ducks don’t stay at the Lower Klamath National Wildlife Refuge all year, but there are times the refuge is vitally important to them – and humans are letting them down. (Infographic PDF) (California Waterfowl, Fall 2019)

Klamath’s Bone-Dry Wetland (California Waterfowl, Summer 2019)

Lawsuit threatens efforts to solve Klamath water problems (California Waterfowl, Fall 2018)

Water problems aren’t over; unbelievably, a banner year for water supply still leaves the Klamath Basin at risk (California Waterfowl, Summer 2017)

Klamath water efforts slow but steadfast (California Waterfowl, Winter 2016)

Bitter loss in battle for water (California Waterfowl, Spring 2016)

Crisis at Lower Klamath (2013):