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Not Much Refuge In Klamath Basin For Migratory Birds

Devan Schwartz

A prolonged drought is putting pressure on water supplies for the Klamath Basin’s wildlife refuges. EarthFix’s Devan Schwartz reports on how the nation’s original waterfowl refuge may be too dry this summer to provide a stopover for millions of migratory birds. It's part two in our series, Refuges in Trouble.

In 1908, Teddy Roosevelt designated the Lower Klamath Lake refuge to protect millions of migrating birds.

Until the early twentieth century, the Klamath River spilled over its banks and formed vast wetlands. Then a railroad was built that cut them off from the river.

You can see the raised railroad bed as you drive on Stateline Road today. The road divides Oregon from California. It also divides Lower Klamath Lake from neighboring row crops.

On a recent trip to the refuge, I spoke with Jim McCarthy. He’s the Southern Oregon program director for Waterwatch of Oregon.

McCarthy: “You can look to the left and you will see green pasture and agricultural crops. And on the right you will see cracked mudflats and dried-out marshes.”

Lower Klamath has lost the majority of its historic wetlands. It now relies on rainfall and whatever water is left from nearby farmers’ canals and ditches.

Some conservation groups take issue with the fact that farming on wildlife refuges is given precedence for limited water supplies.

Credit Devan Schwartz / Earthfix
Water from farmland enters open water at the Lower Klamath wildlife refuge.

McCarthy: “Essentially what we’re seeing here is a national wildlife refuge being sacrificed to serve commercial agriculture.”

The acting refuge manager is Greg Austin. He agrees that the water situation is tough.

Austin: “We’ll probably be dry by the end of July would be my guess.”

Austin says there are a couple reasons for this. One, it’s a drought year. Two, the refuges are among the lowest priorities for receiving water.

Austin: “Right now, the way the water rights are, that’s what we have.”

The state of Oregon last year began cutting off water to some users based on a seniority system.

Many hoped the refuges would end up with more water.

But the Lower Klamath refuges’ bird habitat didn’t fare well. As it stands now, the refuge’s most senior water right goes to agriculture.

Farming has been the crux issue since at least 1964. That’s the year Congress passed a law called the Kuchel Act, authorizing farming on refuges.

The Bureau of Reclamation delivers water both to area farmers and to the Lower Klamath refuge.

Tara Jane Campbell Miranda is with the bureau’s Klamath office. She says commercial farming on the refuges is —

Miranda: “consistent with the Kuchel Act and it is wildlife compatible – and so that’s how those lands are managed.”

Wildlife compatible…that’s the legal standard that must be met for farming on the refuges.

The Portland Audubon Society thinks there’s nothing wildlife compatible about irrigating crops at the expense of wetlands. Bob Sallinger is their conservation director.

He says the original purpose of the refuge, waterfowl protection, isn’t being fulfilled.

Sallinger: “The lake has been allowed to go bone-dry, literally not any water on Lower Klamath Lake, completely dry — it looks like a desert.”

Sallinger says those aren’t the conditions ducks and geese need.

Biologists estimate 80 percent of migrating birds on the Pacific Flyway visit the Klamath refuges; they come to breed, nest and feed.

When waterfowl don’t have enough habitat, Sallinger says they end up crowding together. That increases the likelihood of deadly contagions.

Sallinger: “Over the last couple years, we’ve had huge disease outbreaks of botulism and cholera that have killed upwards of 20,000 birds — that’s a direct result of the fact that there’s so little water during the spring and the summer.”

The Klamath refuges came up at a recent Senate committee hearing on legislation intended to solve the region’s water issues.

Department of Interior advisor John Bezdek and Oregon Senator Ron Wyden discussed how things could improve for the parched refuges.

Bezdek: “The refuges would receive water in nine out of 10 years that would be sufficient to meet their needs.”

Wyden: “We go from essentially nothing, recently, to meeting their needs in nine out of 10 years under this agreement?”

Bezdek: “That is correct, Mr. Chairman.”

Wyden: “Okay.”

Many conservation groups support the bill.

However, Bob Sallinger says the bill won’t provide the refuges with nearly enough water.

Sallinger: “The refuge came up on the short end of the stick unfortunately. And we don’t feel that it goes anywhere near far enough in terms of restoring what’s needed at the refuges.”

So the Portland Audubon Society, along with two other groups, are taking a different approach.

They’ve filed a lawsuit challenging how the Klamath Basin refuges are managed.
The lawsuit calls for a formal management plan that’s more than a year and a half overdue.

Sallinger describes the current situation as

Sallinger: “Farming on a refuge that is antagonistic to the purpose of the refuge.”

The idea is that irrigation water should instead support bird habitat.

Driving down Stateline Road, it’s hard to even picture the vast wetlands that once stretched across the earth beneath Mount Shasta’s white flanks.

And it’s hard to see legislation or litigation changing the landscape back anytime soon.

Instead, it’s a stark reminder of how difficult it is to meet competing water demands in this arid part of the West.

Copyright 2014 Earthfix.

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