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Refuges struggle to survive

Dave Mauser gives a tour of the Lower Klamath Wildlife Refuge. The wetlands rely on Klamath River water as much as farmers and fishermen, but the refuges are the lowest priority among user groups. (Stephen M. Corley/ The Daily Triplicate).
Dave Mauser gives a tour of the Lower Klamath Wildlife Refuge. The wetlands rely on Klamath River water as much as farmers and fishermen, but the refuges are the lowest priority among user groups. (Stephen M. Corley/ The Daily Triplicate).

By Laura Brown

Triplicate staff writer

With precipitation still below normal and two dry years acutely fresh in everyone's minds, the Klamath Basin remains anxious. That's especially true for the refuges in the upper basin, the poorest cousin in the whole Klamath River water-use debate.

While tribes on the lower Klamath argue for the survival of salmon, and farmers in the basin rightfully say their ability to make a living is at stake, the refuges, acknowledged as the lowest on the water priority list, worry whether they will be overlooked entirely.

So far, the year ahead doesn't look promising.

"I don't think farm families are feeling real secure with their position in life right now. Of course, we're last in almost any scenario," said Dave Mauser, a biologist for the Lower Klamath Wildlife refuge.

Travelling on a gravel road riddled with washboards through the heart of the Lower Klamath Wildlife Refuge, birds are everywhere. To the throaty gurgles of the prehistoric greater sandhill cranes, to the cloudlike densities of waterfowl maneuvering out of the path of a bald eagle, these marshlands provide an essential resting place for migrating birds on the Pacific Flyway.

"We're mostly a staging area for birds passing through on their fall migration further south and spring migration to their nesting areas," said Mauser.

Up to 80 percent of the birds flying on the Pacific Flyway use the Lower Klamath Lake and Tule Lake wildlife refuges. It is the largest wintering grounds for bald eagles in the contiguous United States. White pelicans, many varieties of geese and waterfowl can be seen in large numbers in the fall and spring months.

But the six wildlife refuges in the Klamath Basin have struggled to provide healthy habitat for birds while farms steadily encroached on its borders.

"We're having a hard time getting flooded what's left of what there used to be. That's a little discouraging," said Mauser.

Rachel Carson wrote of the refuges in 1963 in her book, "Silent Spring."

"All are linked, perhaps fatefully, by a shared water supply, and all are affected by the fact that they lie like small islands in a great sea of surrounding farmlands – land reclaimed by drainage and stream diversion from an original waterfowl paradise of marshland and open water."

With the passing of the Reclamation Act in 1902, once uninhabitable marshlands were free game for development. The shallow marshes of Lower Klamath Lake, the largest of the refuges, covered 80,000 acres 100 years ago. Today, it is 25 percent of its pre-project size. After the reclamation project, The lake beds were exposed as fertile peat soil for homesteaders, but waterfowl began dying by the thousands from botulism-infected shallow waters. Wind storms and peat fires ravaged the area that was once underwater.

Conservationists, concerned over the drastic loss in habitat for thousands of birds, lobbied hard for the protection of the marshlands. In 1908, President Roosevelt was convinced by the Audubon Society that protective measures must be taken to preserve migratory birds on the Pacific Flyway and he issued an executive order. It was the first of its kind for water fowl in the U.S.

Plumbing problem

"Basically what happened at about the turn of the century, Bureau of Reclamation came into the basin and started the Klamath Project. The project was designed for one specific purpose, agriculture, and basically in the midst of draining these wetlands and reclaiming them for agriculture, these refuges were established to try to preserve what was left.

"The trouble was, we're plumbed into, we're part of the Klamath Project. The project does not have a fish and wildlife purpose, so we're at the very tail end of the irrigation system physically. Historically we've been very dependent on return flows from agriculture to supply our water needs. We have a lot of strikes against us," said Mauser.

In 2001, water valves were turned off to farmers, and, subsequently, to the refuges which depend on tail water. It was the only way to make deliveries to endangered sucker fish in Upper Klamath Lake and threatened coho salmon in the Klamath River.

While farmers argue that to deny them water means the refuges also must run dry, the refuge biologists say the last position they want to take is as a pawn for the farmers, on the opposing side of fish and tribes.

"The position we don't want to be in is refuges vs. the river, refuges vs. the suckers or tribes. The problem with the Klamath River is we've got an overallocated watershed and many of these really important ecosystems that were here – healthy riparian habitat, wetlands in the upper basin – are gone. We need to get after not only a reduction in demand, not only in the project, but in the watershed. We also have to work toward restoration of water quality," said Mauser.

Difficult decisions

During the 2001 drought, after it became apparent that the refuge wasn't going to get the water it needed, biologists had to make the difficult decision of saving some while others would have to go dry.

"We knew from the beginning of the irrigation season that there wasn't going to be any water for the refuge so what we did was basically sacrificed marsh units to keep other ones alive," said Mauser.

Some of the marshes were dried early in the season to keep the salvageable ones hydrated. In August, some of the wetlands were still sufficiently quenched. Then, miraculously, the Bureau found 70,000 acre-feet of water for the farmers and the refuges received the tail water of that. Farmers came to the rescue by donating well water and the Bureau made purchases of well water to supply the refuges.

Three wells were also sunk on the refuge, 1,000 feet below the surface, but two of them were unusable because mercury levels were too high.

"When you look at the size of the area, the wetlands that have to be flooded, wells are a very expensive proposition. And there's a timing issue, too. There were a lot of wells sunk last summer all over the basin, and nobody really knows yet if that aquifer is sustainable," said Mauser.

While populations were higher that year than expected, the lack of food resources to support the migrating birds meant that ducks and geese moved on earlier than usual.

Every year, refuge managers must play a balancing act with limited water supplies. They must chose between the option of flooding the permanent wetlands or the seasonal ones. This past year they decided to fill the latter.

Not all bad

"We've opted to flood seasonal wetlands for the fall migration, not to say that's all bad. There's a lot of shorebirds out there and there's a lot of birds out there that really like shallow water," said Mauser, as he slowly pulled the car to a halt. The raucous cries of thousands of birds rose from the expanse of shallow water and bullrushes. A bald eagle hunkered on a reed-tangled muskrat house, silently observing his abundant food supply.

In November 2002, some wetlands remained dry for a second year in a row to maintain the saturation of a few. The demands for agriculture subsided significantly after October, but the Bureau maintained that the refuges would have to continue getting sparse supplies of water to protect next spring's reserves.

Meanwhile the onslaught of migratory birds was in full swing, while only a portion of the refuge could provide healthy habitat.

Still behind

"The Bureau is sweating about getting up to full by next spring. They're worried about next year and we're trying to get this year. That's frustrating," said Mauser.

This winter has been unusually warm for the basin with few heavy storms to supply the much-needed snowpack around Crater Lake.

Refuge managers are still behind in flooding wetlands and some may have to go dry for a third year in a row. As much as 30 percent of the refuge is still in need of water.

Traditionally, Lower Klamath Lake and the Klamath River shared each other's runoff. During the spring when water was high and the river was raging, water would percolate over the volcanic shelves that extend throughout the basin and fill the wetlands. During the summer months, as the river levels dropped, water from the lakes would flow back into the river, providing a more extended period of runoff.

Then the railroads were built, making a barrier between the two and that put a halt to the lake and river's natural dampening effect.

Beyond the flow issue, another controversy brews. Farming on refuge land became possible after the Kuchel Act (pronounced "Keekal") was passed in 1964. After the bureau began surfacing proposals in the 1950s and early 1960s to begin selling off some of the wetlands for homesteading, conservationists protested. So a compromise of sorts was established. The government set aside a permanent refuge that could never be homesteaded, but also set aside property that could be leased for agriculture.

Lease lands

There are currently 7,000 acres of lease lands on Lower Klamath Lake and 15,000 acres on Tule Lake generating $1 to $2 million annually for the Bureau of Reclamation.

Lease lands are offered to the top bidder and are available for commercial agriculture for a five-year period. Highly sought after by young farmers with no land of their own, a portion of their harvested crop is supposed to be left for the birds. During the winter, fields are left untilled so birds can feed on the spillover left after harvest.

The problem arises when farmers on the wetland receive water while the refuges do not.

Currently a lawsuit brought by environmental groups is challenging the farming on lease lands, and Representative Mike Thompson has drafted a bill that includes federal buyouts of lease land as well as willing sellers of farm acreage.

"We don't believe there should be farming on the refuge. We're not opposed to agriculture, but we do want to reduce agriculture's demand. We think wildlife refuges were established for wildlife," said Tim McKay of the North Coast Environmental Center in Arcata, one of the plaintiffs in the case.

The Environmental Center and other groups are trying to raise money for lease lands when they become available in an attempt to ameliorate the refuge's need for more water. McKay says by doing so, 60,000 acre-feet of water would be saved annually for wildlife purposes.

Farms supply water

But farmers say because the refuges have junior water rights, discontinuing farming in the refuges would mean less tail water that the wetlands depend on.

"Historically in the past, yeah, most of our water has come as return flows from agriculture. It's the way it works right now. You've got to set up ag first and then there will be water left over for the refuge. That doesn't mean it has to be that way. I'm just saying if there was some kind of change in how the project operated or priorities within the project, the plumbing is there to deliver water separately," said Mauser.

Besides abandoning the lease-land program, there has also been talk over the years of retiring homesteaded farmland by willing sellers, but doing that, say farmers, would only take away the stability of the community that remains.

Seeking balance

"I don't know. ‘Balance' to different people seems to mean different things. Farmers talk about finding balanced solutions on the one hand, then someone starts talking land retirement, and it's the end of the conversation," said Mauser.

Since the project reduced the size of the wetlands, a large portion of the birds' natural food sources have disappeared causing them to search elsewhere. In the early days, this caused friction in the community because birds were landing on neighboring farms and causing damage in the fields. Over the years, the farmers and the birds have developed a mutual relationship and the majority of the basin irrigators say living with the birds comes with the territory.

Snow, Ross, whitefronts and Canada geese feed on the small grains such as wheat and barley in the farmers' fields as well as the small potatoes left over after harvest.

"To maintain populations of geese that we have on the Pacific Flyway, there's some need for some agriculture," said Mauser.

Inovative ideas

Over the years, experimental crop rotations have been in place on the refuge. Marshlands are converted to grain fields and flooded all winter as the only source of irrigation. In the summer months, these same fields are allowed to go without any extra water, yet yield fairly substantial crops without the use of pesticides or other chemicals. During the 2001 drought, the refuge's fields of barley survived while other farms dependent on sprinkler irrigation did not.

While innovative ideas are being achieved in the basin, the lack of water has made it a slow process and in many years, things have to be put on hold. Those with water rights have held steadfast to their beliefs. Conflicting studies have emerged on what is best for protected fish leading to skepticism of the "best available science."

"It makes you wonder how much is politically driven and how much is science-driven," said Mauser.

Mauser says that while the project, until just recently, has been the focus of the debate, there are other water users that need to be more carefully examined.

Water banks, water storage and land retirement are the proposals now on the table. Time will tell whether the government will rethink its current management of the basin and formulate well-rounded solutions that make ecological sense for wildlife without tarnishing the local farming economy.

"I just don't see a way around some kind of land-retirement program," Mauser said. Water is always one of those things, you've got it or you don't. It's black and white. That's when I become cynical. Either you bring cash or you bring water."

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