Key wildlife refuge hit hard in Klamath Basin’s water wars

Key wildlife refuge hit hard in Klamath Basin’s water wars
by Scott Learn

July 7, 2013

STATE LINE ROAD — Normally, the honks and calls of thousands of ducks, grebes and egrets clustering at the Lower Klamath National Wildlife Refuge make it hard to talk over the racket.

But conversation is easy this summer. The only sounds at the bird-watching deck come from trucks on the distant highway and a few twittering songbirds.

The 54,000-acre refuge at the Oregon-California border hasn’t had water delivered since March. The canals that supply it are empty. And the marshes for waterfowl traveling the Pacific Flyway have largely dried up, marking the earliest dry date in 70 years.

In the Klamath Basin, the drought-year casualty reports typically focus on farmers, ranchers, tribes or salmon and suckers on the endangered species list.

Ron Cole, who has managed the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service’s extensive Klamath refuge system for 10 years, wishes the birds would get more air time.

“You have absolutely carved out the heart of the Pacific Flyway when you dry up the Klamath refuge,” says Cole, who stresses that he’s speaking as an individual, not for the Fish and Wildlife Service.

The basin once teemed with wetlands. But the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s 1905 project built canals and dams, draining lakes, ponds and marshes to produce 210,000 acres of farmland.

Today, about a fifth of the original wetlands remain.

The Lower Klamath, the nation’s first waterfowl refuge and one of six in the basin, is a powerhouse for mating and migration in good years. In 2003 and 2004, it hosted the most surviving duck hatchlings in the basin, by far, and a third of its non-game waterbirds.

It’s also the most challenged for water in dry years — the state declared a “drought emergency” for Klamath County in April. The refuge stands behind endangered fish and agriculture for water from Upper Klamath Lake. As a result, its water supply varies widely. In 2010, it got 3,700 acre-feet; in 2012, 24,000. Cole figures it needs 95,000 a year to run at full capacity.

Adding to the problem: Rising electricity costs have cut off much of the water pumped from the nearby Tule Lake refuge.

The refuge doesn’t have any endangered species. Federal law, Cole says, forces the government to concentrate on the basin’s listed species, coastal coho and shortnose and Lost River suckers.

On the viewing deck, he points to dry marshes that run to the horizon. “We focused all our conservation activities in the basin in a very narrow, single-species sort of way,” he says. “This is an example of what happens.”

The Klamath Basin Restoration Agreement, signed in 2008 by irrigators, tribes, federal and state officials, and environmental groups, tried to strike a better balance.

Combined with removal of four Klamath River dams, it would provide far more water for the refuges, particularly in dry years like this one. It would put the refuges on par with agriculture for water, and give them 20 percent of farm lease revenues for conservation work.

But authorization of dam removal and of the restoration agreement, with a $500 federal million price tag, has gone nowhere in Congress.

Some environmental groups want water diverted from the thousands of acres of leased farmland in the refuges. Cole sees hope in recent water rights decisions by the state of Oregon. The refuges hold low-priority water rights, but the decisions put The Klamath Tribes first in line, giving them more power to push for a balanced approach.

Jeff Mitchell, lead negotiator for the Oregon-based tribes, says the restoration agreement, while imperfect, offers the best approach. His Modoc ancestors hail from the south end of Lower Klamath Lake, whose remnants are part of the refuge.

“We’re certainly attached to that land, and we always will be,” he says. “We want to make sure the resources down there are protected.”

This year, the refuges are unlikely to receive much water, if any, Oregon officials say. California-based Klamath River tribes are worried about having enough water for salmon. Reclamation project farmers are also taking a hit.

The project’s federal managers expect to deliver about 340,000 acre-feet of water — about 110 billion gallons –from Upper Klamath Lake to farms this irrigation season, 20 percent below the long-term average. Plans call for another 320,000 acre-feet to be released to the Klamath River to benefit salmon.

Cole’s hoping for water this fall to support migrating birds — 45,000-acre feet beginning in September would do it. As summer wears on, he’s worried disease and die-offs could spread as too many birds crowd into too few wetlands.

With the current water split, Cole says, “this refuge is just going to be collateral damage.”

— Scott Learn