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‘The kidney of the basin’

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Lower Klamath Lake may not be a lake anymore, but it can still play a major part in maintaining the health of the Klamath Basin — if it can get enough water.

Since 2010, the average yearly inflow of water to the Lower Klamath National Wildlife Refuge has dropped by more than half. Refuge managers say they need to get back to a regular delivery schedule in order to keep the complex of wetlands, uplands and croplands productive. But an area that once acted as the aquatic lungs of the Klamath Basin now finds itself in the same situation irrigators do: pleading for more water from the Klamath Project.

Lower Klamath has been hooked into the Project since the 1940s, finding itself in the awkward position of having to depend on biological opinions and irrigation districts in order to carry out the essential ecosystem services it provided on its own for thousands of years. But just like the wetlands that comprise it, the refuge is resilient.

In the early 1900s, shallow Lower Klamath Lake spanned about 32,400 acres. Depending on precipitation and inflows from the Klamath River, its area expanded and contracted across more than 40,000 surrounding acres of wetland, furnishing one of the most productive freshwater marshes on the continent.

tule canoe_lower klamath1905

Three men paddle a canoe through a tule marsh in Lower Klamath Lake. Taken by William L. Finley (from the Oregon Historical Society)

When William L. Finley, western field representative of the National Association of Audubon Societies, came to the Klamath Basin in 1905, he described Lower Klamath Lake as “a veritable jungle.” Rich peat soils on the lakebed supported floating islands of tule that grew up to 15 feet high. This was a Mecca of the Pacific Flyway: Canada geese, western grebes and white pelicans would gather in the thousands among the aquatic grasses, resting and fueling up on their fall and spring migrations to and from California’s Central Valley. In the winter, hundreds of bald eagles would roost in the nearby mountains. And in the summer, broods of ducks swam among the aquatic grasses. Some bird counts surpassed a million.

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A flock of gulls and terns takes flight over a marsh in Lower Klamath Lake. Taken by William L. Finley (from the Oregon Historical Society)

The year of Finley’s visit was also the year the Bureau of Reclamation (then called the Reclamation Service) established the Klamath Project. In 1908, President Theodore Roosevelt named Lower Klamath the nation’s first waterfowl refuge. But right after the lake received federal protection, things began to change.

Drying up

Though Reclamation altered the basin’s hydrology in constructing the Klamath Project, refuge biologist John Vradenburg said the biggest impact on Lower Klamath Lake came from the Southern Pacific railroad, which arrived in Klamath Falls in 1909. The tracks ran through a vast marsh south of Lake Ewauna called the Klamath Straits.

Historically, spring ice dams would divert river water south through the wetlands and into the lake, where aquatic plants would filter out nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorous. Come fall, winds would push the purified water back into the river.

“You always had this water kind of going back and forth across this big lake,” Vradenburg said. Lower Klamath was the river system’s natural water filter.

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A great blue heron looks out over Lower Klamath Lake in 1905. Taken by William L. Finley (from the Oregon Historical Society)

But the railroad’s embankment through the Klamath Straits blocked most of that flow, funneling it through a gate. That gate closed in 1917, and as Oregon and California continued to cede more land for homesteading (and therefore irrigation), it never reopened. By February 1920, the lake’s water level had declined by 4 feet. Two years later, all that remained of Lower Klamath was a 365-acre sump at the far south edge of the lake bed. Far fewer birds came.

“Wetlands are sloppy. They were designed to be sloppy,” Vradenburg said. “If you take that slop out of the system, the first thing that starts to struggle is wetlands.”

marsh_lower klamath2020

Lower Klamath Refuge managers say the soil and size of the remaining wetlands allow them to run things using relatively low amounts of water. But when they don’t know how much or when they’ll get water, it’s hard to develop those management plans.

At the dry lake bed that used to be Lower Klamath, prevailing winds kicked up huge dust storms that swept through the basin. Reclamation officials received complaints from residents — concerned about the dust and longing for the birds’ return — urging them to refill the lake as early as 1926.

In 1924, naturalist Edward William Nelson wrote “What was formerly a great wildlife refuge became a desert.”

Lower Klamath’s comeback

Though development of the basin caused Lower Klamath to disappear, the Klamath Project was what brought it back.

While Lower Klamath dried up, Tule Lake began having the opposite problem. As the terminus of the Lost River, it was designated a bird refuge in 1928 because of its abundance of waterfowl and water. But because it had no outlet, stagnant water conditions in the 1930s caused botulism levels among Tule Lake’s bird populations to increase.

There was also concern that the modification of the Lost River and Gerber Reservoirs could lead to Tule Lake receiving heavy inflows during high water years, putting lakeside farmland at risk for flooding.

In 1938, Reclamation Senior Engineer J.R. Iakisch came up with a solution to reallocate the water. In a report, he developed a plan to construct a pump and tunnel system, which would deliver water through the mountain ridge that separated the two lakes. Tule Lake’s sump would be reduced by around 20,000 acres, which would maintain bird habitat while also freeing up more land for farming. It would also allow for greater movement of water throughout the sump, preventing waterborne illnesses.

pelicans_tule lake

East of Lower Klamath, Tule Lake is also a popular spot for migrating, breeding and nesting birds. In the 1940s, part of its water was diverted to Lower Klamath Lake, which had almost entirely dried up after the construction of the Southern Pacific railroad.

The pump, called D Plant, would extract water from Tule Lake and send it through a 7,000-foot tunnel to be deposited into the P Canal west of the ridge. Each year, Lower Klamath would receive between 35,000 and 38,000 acre feet of water from D Plant, 10,000 to 15,000 acre feet from the Klamath River through the Ady Canal, and around 10,000 acre feet of surplus water from the Klamath Drainage District.

d plant

Tule Lake continues to be a main source of water for the Lower Klamath Refuge. Pumps at D Plant, which pulls water through a mountain ridge to transfer it to the refuge, are operated by the Tulelake Irrigation District.

It wouldn’t be enough to turn Lower Klamath back into a lake, so the refuge carved the lake bed into 13 units, divided by canals that delivered water mostly through gravity. Each unit could be managed as a permanent wetland, seasonal wetland or cropland based on inflows from the Project. Though fragmented, the mosaic-like refuge became just about as productive as the original lake — with far less water.

D Plant opened in 1942, and by 1965 waterfowl populations were responding well to the restoration of both lakes. But the water wouldn’t last forever.

Today’s challenges

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See how Lower Klamath Lake changed over the past 115 years. Map illustrations by Alex Schwartz.

Vradenburg said 2008 was likely the last “good year” the refuge had. Regular water deliveries in the fall and spring had allowed refuge managers to foster a network of seasonal and permanent wetlands, ensuring that a variety of plants would be available at certain times of the year. Along with the refuge’s incredibly rich peat soils, this meant the wetlands could provide all annual life cycle requirements for birds, from lipid-packed smartweed to corn-like Timothy and protein-filled invertebrates.

But since 2008, deliveries have become less frequent and more erratic. The last major inflow to the refuge came last fall. Other than what refuge project manager Greg Austin calls a “tiny trickle” in March, Lower Klamath’s thirst hasn’t been quenched since.

The refuge is the last recipient of water after all irrigators have been taken care of. In years like this one and 2001, when the farmers themselves are struggling to irrigate, the refuge is out of luck. What little water they may get is what irrigators haven’t used in the early fall. By then, half of the season’s migrating birds have already come and gone.

The amount of water isn’t so much a problem as the lack of a guarantee of water. Austin said that was one of the points the refuge system negotiated in the failed Klamath Basin Restoration Agreement: If managers knew going into a water year that they would be getting a baseline amount, they say that would help them plan better. Because of the nature of the refuge, managers are accustomed to squeezing every last bit of utility out of each molecule of water that enters the system.

“We keep all the water we have here and we recycle the heck out of it,” Austin said. “It’s a completely different management strategy than it was 20, 25 years ago.”

peat soil_lower klamath2020

Today, Lower Klamath Refuge is a network of 13 individually managed wetland units, which contain thick, spongy peat soil.

At a drier unit that’s just starting to see growth of wetland plants, the ground feels as soft and springy as a sponge. That’s by design — the refuge’s thick peat soil holds water so well that it can stay moist for months without significant irrigation. But once the ground dries up, it takes a lot of water to get wet again. That’s why refuge managers want a guaranteed delivery: In years when they can’t get as much water as they’d like, they could at least keep the sponge wet.

“When you don’t know when you’re going to get water, how much you’re going to get and how long you’re going to get it for, that takes away all management options,” Vradenburg said.

Until 2008, there were anywhere between 13,000 and 15,000 acres of highly productive permanent wetlands in Lower Klamath, which provide for all life cycle activities of the birds. Now, managers are lucky if they’re able to maintain 2,000. The reduced habitat and food means more migrating birds bypass the basin, eating their foods at their new destinations a month early. This causes their body conditions to deteriorate, leaving them more prone to disease and less likely to breed when they return, where the basin still may not have enough food and water to sustain them.

Vradenburg said this will eventually translate into lower breeding productivity for the birds. A population crash hasn’t happened yet, but higher rates of cholera and botulism he’s seen among spring migrators indicate their poor conditions. Beyond being a loss for biodiversity, Austin noted that hunting in the refuge, for which it used to be nationally famous, has been trending down significantly, along with the economic activity that associated it.

“In the Pacific Flyway, this was the hotspot,” Vradenburg said. “Now, people don’t even know about it.”

‘Tied at the hip’

Though ag and the refuge both need water, Austin and Vradenburg said the two entities don’t fight over it. About 8,000 acres of the refuge is literally set aside for farmers: They farm mostly grains and they leave a portion of their crop as food for birds, complementing natural seeds from wetland plants.

By the nature of the soil, these crops are certified organic. Some farmers get their kids plots on the refuge’s lease lands to get them started with their own farming operations. When the refuge doesn’t get water, they don’t either.

“The agriculture community and the refuge are tied intimately at the hip,” Vradenburg said.

Beyond the farming that occurs on the refuge, Lower Klamath receives support from the irrigation districts that supply them, who have to make do with what little water they get from the Project. Brad Kirby, manager of the Tulelake Irrigation District, said he has a good relationship with the Fish and Wildlife Service and that the refuges are crucial to the health of the basin.

“It’s not that we just cohabitate,” Kirby said. “We actually collaborate.”

Vradenburg and Austin agreed.

“I think [Kirby] has always believed in the refuges,” Vradenburg said.

canal_lower klamath2020

ABOVE: This area would have been under around 10 feet of water at the turn of the 20th Century. Lower Klamath Lake spanned 32,400 acres and was fringed by more than 40,000 acres of wetland. BELOW: A flock of birds crosses over a managed wetland unit in Lower Klamath National Wildlife Refuge. From supporting regional biodiversity to maintaining the health of the Klamath Basin, Lower Klamath Lake was one of the most productive wetlands on the continent.

Managers say the refuge has a potential to be even more than the West Coast’s largest bird rest stop. Its nutrient-sucking marshes could help fix the Project’s water quality issues. Running water from Lake Ewauna down through the refuge and sending it back out into the Klamath would let the wetlands do what they were meant to, possibly improving downstream conditions for fish in the process. Austin said the refuge is embarking on an extensive study to see just how well it could act as a giant Brita for the basin, and given water quality measurements they’ve previously taken on individual units, Lower Klamath’s capacity for removing nutrients from Upper Klamath Lake’s hypereutrophic water is promising.

Looking back on the refuge’s tumultuous history, Austin is optimistic that if Lower Klamath went from a dust bowl to a productive wetland system within a couple decades, it’ll be able to bounce back from the current water crisis.

“I have to remind myself that it can come back,” he said.

And just as the Project saved the refuge, there’s a chance the refuge could save the Project, too.

“This place was the kidney of the basin,” Vradenburg said. “You can only function for so long without a kidney.”

ducklings_lower klamath1905

A brood of ducklings follows their mother in the open water of Lower Klamath Lake. Taken by William L. Finley (from the Oregon Historical Society)