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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Klamath in Peril

Air Date: Week of
Snow Geese in the Klamath Basin (Photo: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

Fifty years ago, the Lower Klamath National Wildlife Refuge had the greatest concentration of waterfowl in North America. But in recent years, migration brings fewer and fewer birds. Water destined for the wetlands is diverted for agriculture, leaving birds high and dry, and sometimes dead. Host Bruce Gellerman spoke with American Bird Conservancy’s Steve Holmer and Steve Pedery of Oregon Wild about how water management and competing interests have caused the death of tens of thousands of birds.


GELLERMAN: From the Jennifer and Ted Stanley Studios in Somerville Massachusetts, it’s Living on Earth. I’m Bruce Gellerman. The Lower Klamath Refuge straddles the border of Oregon and California. It was our nation’s first waterfowl refuge. And until a few decades ago, it had the largest concentration of waterfowl in North America, and quite possibly the world.

But a recent drought, an elaborate system of dams, dikes, and drains and competing demands for water have dried up the wetlands, creating a dire situation for the birds. In recent months there has been a massive die off at the Lower Klamath refuge. Steve Holmer is the senior policy advisor with the American Bird Conservancy.

HOLMER: It's an area of wetland marshes, it’s a vast, flat expanse ringed by some low hills. I’ve been out there to see some bald eagles in the wintertime and it’s really a magnificent place. And, historically, it was one of the most important wetland complexes in the west, some seven million migrating birds in a year would visit there.

GELLERMAN: How many birds came this year?

HOLMER: Right now there’s between one and two million.

GELLERMAN: Wow. Why are the numbers down so far?

HOLMER: Well, about 80 percent of the wetlands there have been drained. So, there’s a lot less available habitat. And there’s still kind of ongoing controversy about how to maintain the remaining water and wetlands that are still there. This year there was insufficient water, and this forced the birds that did migrate there to crowd too closely together and as a result an avian cholera epidemic, spread through the bird community and as many as 10,000 birds have already died.

Lower Klamath Wetlands (Photo: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

GELLERMAN: So, there’s been a drought this year, right?


GELLERMAN: But that’s not the whole story.

HOLMER: That’s right.

GELLERMAN: As I understand it, there are a number of dams in the area, and that’s a large part of the problem.

HOLMER: It is. The biggest issue really has been the diversion of water for agriculture. There needs to basically be a more equitable distribution of the water particularly when you have a drought year like this because it seems that wildlife is really kind of at the bottom of the pecking order.

GELLERMAN: So, let me understand this. You’ve got a drought, but on top of that you’ve got these dams and the diversion of water for agriculture.


GELLERMAN: Why is that a problem this year as opposed to years past?

HOLMER: Well, it’s actually an ongoing issue that we’d like to see resolved. The Klamath National Wildlife Refuge is going through a conservation planning process. And as part of that process, we are asking the agency to consider a more equitable distribution of the water. You know, there’s a lot of farmers who might be interested in working with the agency on conservation for more areas, because that’s really what’s needed to try to bring back more of the wetlands.

GELLERMAN: Which agency is that?

HOLMER: That’s the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that manages the Klamath Wildlife Refuge.

GELLERMAN: Well, to some it sounds like mismanagement.

HOLMER: Well, I think that this is kind of one of those historical challenges where I think the agency has been doing things for a certain way for a long time, but we’re hoping that they’re now ready to take a fresh look because we are seeing some real serious impacts on wildlife. You know, it’s a missed opportunity, this is a refuge that could be hosting seven million birds a year, and this could be a huge tourist attraction and a real spectacle that I think people would want to come check out, so if we could restore the system, there will be some real benefits.

GELLERMAN: Now, I understand that these dams are going to come down in a couple of years.

HOLMER: Yeah, there has been a number of things happening in the courts, and with Congress. And for that piece I would talk to my colleague Steve Pedery at Oregon Wild because he’s been much more directly involved with that, and our group has really mainly been involved in this conservation planning progress.

GELLERMAN: Well, Steve Holmer, thanks a lot!

HOLMER: Thanks for having me on!

Great Blue Herron in the Klamath Refuge (Photo: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

GELLERMAN: Steve Holmer is senior policy advisor with the American Bird Conservancy. Well as he suggested we called Steve Pedery, the conservation director with Oregon Wild, to find out what can be done to relieve the parched wetlands and save waterfowl in the Lower Klamath Refuge. He joins me on Skype. Mr. Pedery welcome to Living on Earth.

PEDERY: Thanks for having me!

GELLERMAN: As I understand it, there is no legal mechanism available for the Refuge to get more water. Is that right?

PEDERY: You know, that’s not entirely true. In the west, we allocate water based on a very archaic set of laws and it basically means, first come, first serve. The first person to come to a place and use water gets a water right and they have the highest priority and the people who come later, come down the line.

GELLERMAN: By rights of first dibs it would be the birds that get the water though.

PEDERY: And, you know, that’s one of the great frustrations of people who work on water issues and fish and wildlife conservation in the West, that I think all Americans would want to see a National Wildlife Refuge have water. I mean, after all, we created this place to have habitat for bald eagles and great blue herons and Canada geese and snow geese.

The Refuges were founded in 1908. And then there’s a Bureau of Reclamation irrigation project in the Klamath basin that was founded in 1905. And that’s sort of the root of the conflict, that irrigation tends to come first in the Klamath Basin. The Refuges do have a water right, but the reality is, in a drought year, the Refuge is the first thing that gets cut off. Because of the demands for irrigation upstream, the wildlife have suffered.

GELLERMAN: Well, wasn’t it just a few years ago that the governors of Oregon and California signed, what was termed a historic agreement, to bring down the dams in the Klamath Basin and help spread out the water?

PEDERY: Well, yes and no. Under the Bush Administration, there was an agreement crafted to remove a series of aging dams on the Klamath River, and that is absolutely a great thing. But one of big the problems with that agreement was that the Bush Administration essentially said, if you want these dams out, you have to support continuing the current practice, the status quo of irrigation in the upper basin. And for wildlife in the refuges, that’s a bad thing.

GELLERMAN: Well, who benefits from the status quo?

Bald Eagle in Klamath Refuge (Photo: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

PEDERY: Well, the status quo really preserves an agricultural project that has been very well connected politically and that has been very good at maintaining the status quo for a very long time.

GELLERMAN: So it’s agriculture, it’s the farmers who are using most of the water, then.

PEDERY: Yeah, and you know, the Klamath Basin is a really interesting place. It was one of the reclamation projects built in the country, it’s about 4,000 feet in elevation. It gets a similar amount of rainfall to Tucson, Arizona. Most of the agriculture that happens here, happens because of irrigation - because water is captured before it can flow into these wetlands and into the Klamath River and used for irrigation.

GELLERMAN: So, what’s the solution?

PEDERY: We really need a program, a voluntary program, to buy back water rights from irrigators and retire them so that water can be left in-stream for fish and wildlife, it can flow into these wetlands. But also, so that the farmers who choose not to participate can have more certainty that they will have an adequate supply of water in the future.

That’s really the best long-term solution, and especially when you think about climate change and what the future can bring in the basin, we really have to get ahead of this problem, if we don't do something were just going to keep lurching from one crisis to another. The reality is that there just isn’t enough water to go around, and that ultimately is probably going to take Congress getting involved to buy back some of these water rights.

GELLERMAN: So, do you see anything happening, anything changing?

PEDERY: You know, we remain optimistic. If you’re not an optimist, you don’t last very long working on fish and wildlife conservation. But the Fish and Wildlife Service has really struggled to come up with management plans that both provide water and balance some of the commercial activities that happen on the Refuges.

You know, we’re looking ahead to 2014, the Wildlife Service is supposed to develop a comprehensive conservation plan for these refuges. We think that’s going to be the next bite of the apple. But the bottom line in the Klamath Basin is we’ve just promised too much water to too many different interests. And no settlement agreement has the power to wave a magic wand and create more water.

GELERMAN: Well, Mr. Pedery, thank you so much!

PEDERY: Thank you.

GELLERMAN: Steve Pedery is the conservation director with Oregon Wild.



Klamath Basin National Wildlife Refuge Complex Website

American Bird Conservancy Website

Oregon Wild Website


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