Report Charts Path to More Secure Water Supply for Klamath Refuges

For Immediate Release

May 5, 2014

Report Charts Path to More Secure Water Supply for Klamath Refuges
New Options Could Prevent Future Bird Die-Offs, Restore Essential Wildlife Habitat in Chronically Water-Starved Wetlands

Online Version of Report Available Here

High Resolution Version Available Here

Letter to Interior Secretary Jewell and USFWS Director Ashe

Klamath Refuge Leaselands Map

The Klamath leaselands divert senior refuge water rights, and displace refuge habitat and water storage, to serve a small number of agribusiness interests.

Portland – WaterWatch of Oregon today released a detailed report, produced by GOLDINWATER Consulting, providing analysis of several legal options available to secure significantly improved water supplies for Lower Klamath and Tule Lake National Wildlife Refuges. In recent years, both of these Klamath Basin wildlife refuges have suffered chronic water shortages and catastrophic waterfowl disease outbreaks, sparked by lack of water.

“In the Klamath River Basin, progress in Oregonʼs adjudication of water rights has created new opportunities to improve refuge water supply by clarifying rights to water, allowing for enforcement, and eventually allowing for water right transfers,” said WaterWatch Executive Director John DeVoe. “Most importantly, this report makes clear that the adjudication provides both these refuges with senior water rights that could be used now to support wetlands, even during drought. In time, the adjudication will progress enough to allow water transfers to achieve additional improvements for wetland water supply on both refuges.”

WaterWatch has forwarded the report to Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell and Director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Daniel Ashe. In a letter, the conservationists urged them to implement the report’s recommendations as soon as possible, and incorporate them into the long-overdue Comprehensive Conservation Plan (CCP) for the Klamath Basin National Wildlife Refuge Complex, which includes Lower Klamath and Tule Lake refuges.

Last month, WaterWatch joined with two other conservation groups in filing suit to compel the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to produce a much-needed CCP for the Klamath Basin Complex. The plan, required by law, is nearly 19 months past the federally-mandated deadline.

The report, titled “Opportunities for Improving Water Supply Reliability for Wildlife Habitat on the Tule Lake and Lower Klamath National Wildlife Refuges,” highlights three specific options that should be seriously considered to enhance refuge water supply:

1. Use the refugesʼ 1905 irrigation rights for wetland purposes within the existing places of use of those rights, instead of for irrigation of intensive commercial farming operations on refuge lands annually leased to agribusiness. This option could be implemented today.

2. Transfer USFWS-owned senior water rights to refuge habitat areas with less senior water rights. This option will become available when a final decree is issued in the adjudication, or earlier if new state legislation allows.

3. Purchase or lease senior water rights for transfer to the refuges to enhance wildlife habitat through the Federal Water Rights Acquisition Program, or other programs or funds.

These three options are described in detail in the report and could provide significant and much needed water to refuge wetlands that often go dry under current management.

Under current management, the refuges’ anachronistic leaseland program displaces refuge habitat and consumes the most senior water right on both refuges. In drought years such as 2013 and 2014, this means commercial potato and alfalfa crops on refuge lands receive full water deliveries, while refuge wetlands remain parched, even during the critical spring and fall migratory periods. These conditions helped spark massive waterfowl die-offs from avian cholera in 2012 and botulism in 2013.

“Last year, bird watchers and duck hunters around the West watched Lower Klamath’s wetlands disappear for lack of water, ” said Jim McCarthy, WaterWatch’s Southern Oregon Program Manager. “It is critical for the public to know that they were not seeing the results of drought. They were seeing the results of a decision by the federal government to not use the refuge’s most senior water rights for wetlands and waterfowl and instead, use that water for commercial farming on refuge lands.”

The Klamath Basin wetlands once encompassed more than 350,000 acres and what was believed to be the largest concentration of waterfowl in the world, with up to 10 million birds occupying basin wetlands at one time. Today, these wetlands have been reduced to 80,000 acres to make way for commercial agriculture. This greatly increases the importance of the remaining wetlands, some of the most critical of which lie within Lower Klamath and Tule Lake refuges. Unfortunately, more than 22,000 refuge acres are leased for commercial agriculture, displacing essential wildlife habitat.

Governor Kitzhaber has already declared 2014 to be another drought year in the Klamath Basin, and the federal government has announced plans to again cut water for wildlife while preserving full deliveries for agribusiness operations on Klamath refuge lands.

“These refuges were created to preserve some of the most important bird habitat in the United States, but they are being sacrificed to serve a handful of local agribusiness interests,” added McCarthy. “If these refuges are to remain viable for waterfowl, the refuges’ most senior water rights must be used for refuge purposes – wetlands and waterfowl. The small number of commercial farming operations leasing these public refuge lands could just as easily take their rental business to local private farmland owners, rather than stay dependent upon a federal program.”