RANCHO CORDOVA, Calif. – June 10, 2021 – The Klamath Basin is in the midst of an historic massive drought that threatens to change the face of the region’s wetland habitats and the very fabric of the local community. The Basin provides important food resources and rest for hundreds of thousands of waterfowl every spring and fall, making it one of Ducks Unlimited’s (DU) highest priority areas in North America.
Ducks Unlimited is working with our partners and supporters for answers to, or at least some relief from, the water challenges in the Basin. Through collaborating with wildlife refuges, irrigation districts, local tribes, farmers and others, DU is searching for an elusive solution to support waterfowl in the Basin, provide adequate water for farmland and protect native fish species.
Along the Oregon and California border lie the Tule Lake and Lower Klamath National Wildlife Refuges. In fall 1958, more than 5 million waterfowl were counted on these two refuges alone. A year earlier, 3 million northern pintails were counted on Tule Lake, roughly equivalent to the entire continental population of the birds today. From the 1950s through the 1970s these refuges were among the most important waterfowl habitats on earth. They are the gateway to the Central Valley of California, where 60% of all waterfowl in the Pacific Flyway winter.
The Lower Klamath and Tule Lake National Wildlife Refuges are the linchpin of waterfowl habitat in California and Oregon’s Klamath Basin and rely on water supplied through the Bureau of Reclamation’s Klamath Project canals from the Klamath Drainage District (KDD) or Tulelake Irrigation District (TID).
In April, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation announced it will not deliver agricultural water through the Klamath Basin Project this year because of dwindling water supplies. Not only will the farms in the Project not receive any surface water, neither will the two refuges.
While the refuges did receive some irrigation return water last year, it was far from its normal supply. In August 2020, Tule Lake refuge was at its lowest level in recent memory and the site of a severe avian botulism outbreak that killed more than 50,000 ducks. It was the latest blow for a refuge that now supports waterfowl in the tens of thousands rather than the millions.
“Botulism is a natural, regular occurrence on the landscape in the Intermountain West and is exacerbated by hot temperatures, low water levels, alkaline soil, concentrated numbers of waterfowl – all things that were found in Tule Lake NWR last year and we might very well see it again this year,” said DU Western Region Director of Operations Jeff McCreary. “However, a botulism outbreak can be managed with recovering and rehabilitating sick birds, as well as water movement and cycling in deeper water.”
Although Lower Klamath refuge has fared better over the years, it’s also facing hard times. Lower Klamath once consisted of 25,000 acres of well-managed wetlands that provided crucial staging habitat for waterfowl and other migratory birds. Now refuge personnel struggle to flood a mere five or six thousand acres. This year even less.
Ducks Unlimited leadership recently met with farmers from the drought-stricken Klamath Basin to better understand their drought-related struggles and help with finding water supply solutions.
Ducks Unlimited Senior Vice President of Public Policy Al Montna, DU Past President and Wetlands America Trust Board Member Paul Bonderson Jr., and DU Western Regional staff recently toured parts of the region.
“It is clear after our visit that the farmers and ranchers of the Klamath Basin are not only integral problem solvers for the plight of waterfowl in the region, but are key to solving the water supply challenges in the Basin and on the Refuges,” Montna said. “Their commitment to working with DU on working lands conservation programs will benefit farm families, the local economy, waterfowl and many other species. This partnership will promote the efficient use of every water molecule in the Basin.”
DU is developing water management solutions and improvements with the irrigation districts and others to support waterfowl and agriculture in the Basin.
“Last year, Tulelake Irrigation District found water at a critical time for Sump 1A to lessen the impact of the botulism outbreak,” McCreary said. “This year, TID and its farmers are working with the refuge to move water from Sump 1A to Sump 1B to consolidate the water into a deeper wetland unit to limit the potential for an outbreak. This will also allow for some crucial additional agriculture irrigation as Sump 1B cannot hold as much water as is currently in Sump 1A.”
And more help is on the way.
In May, Ducks Unlimited and Intermountain West Joint Venture announced new Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP) funding awarded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS).
The Klamath Basin is part of the larger Southern Oregon, Northeastern California (SONEC) ecological region. The Klamath Basin Farming and Wetland Collaborative RCPP will receive $3,800,000 to implement conservation projects that provide temporary habitat for migrating waterfowl on working agricultural land in this important waterfowl migration landscape.
Of wetlands located in the SONEC region, 74 % are on privately owned working agricultural lands. More than 6 million migratory birds rely on these working wet meadows for successful migration and reproduction each year, making flood irrigation practices on working wetlands in SONEC and the Klamath Basin especially important for sustaining waterfowl populations in North America. This RCPP offers financial incentives for landowners and agricultural producers to meet critical habitat requirements, providing short-term relief for migratory birds.
In SONEC, sustained funding and ever-growing partnerships around these programs can increase the resilience of the irrigated ranches and wetland systems to supplement wetland habitat drying on the Tule Lake and Lower Klamath National Wildlife Refuges.
The RCPP promotes coordination of NRCS conservation activities with partners to address on-farm, watershed and regional natural resource concerns. Through RCPP, NRCS seeks to co-invest with partners to implement projects that demonstrate innovative solutions to conservation challenges.
The Klamath Basin Farming and Wetland Collaborative RCPP will continue building on the foundation of community-focused conservation success in the SONEC region inherent to DU’s proven conservation model.
“The ongoing western drought highlights the need for collaborative, multi-benefit, long-term solutions,” said McCreary. “The problems facing the Klamath Basin are complex and a durable solution to effective water management is elusive, but too much is at stake to give up or leave any stakeholder group behind. Ducks Unlimited is confident that by working together and giving everyone a seat at the table, a long-term agreement can be reached that supports the needs of waterfowl, wildlife, farmers and ranchers, and fish.”
Ducks Unlimited Inc. is the world's largest nonprofit organization dedicated to conserving North America's continually disappearing waterfowl habitats. Established in 1937, Ducks Unlimited has conserved more than 15 million acres thanks to contributions from more than a million supporters across the continent. Guided by science and dedicated to program efficiency, DU works toward the vision of wetlands sufficient to fill the skies with waterfowl today, tomorrow and forever. For more information on our work, visit www.ducks.org.