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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 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 essential habitat at critical times in their life cycles. At least it does when it has water.

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 restores promised water supply

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

The Herald and News reported on May 8 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

The Klamath Water Users Association issued an alert to members (click to read PDF) on April 21 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

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

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

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

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):