Another Season of Drought Approaches at Klamath

by Bob Sallinger, Conservation Director

Writing about another season of water crisis on the Klamath Wildlife Refuges has become as predictable as the annual migration of the birds who depend on these refuges for survival. In the midst of what has been described in the journal Nature Climate Change as the worst megadrought in the western United States in 1,200 years, the Bureau of Reclamation has announced another year of severe water shortages in the Klamath Basin. Endangered sucker fish in Upper Klamath Lake, endangered salmon in the Klamath River, farmers, and the refuges will all compete again for scarce water, estimated to be less than a seventh of what is typically allocated in a wetter year. Everybody will lose. Because of complex water rights and other legal and political factors, the refuges will lose the most. In the hierarchy of farmers, fish, and birds, the birds come in dead last.

It is likely that at the Tule Lake Refuge, as in 2021, water from 9,000 acres of wetlands at Sump 1A will be pumped into Sump 1B. Concentrating water there will help protect its healthier wetlands and also reduce the risk of a botulism outbreak in Sump 1B from stagnant water conditions. While this may be the most practical path forward under the circumstances, it means that restoration efforts at Sump 1A will continue to languish, and the Klamath Basin Wetlands, once known as the Everglades of the West but have lost more than 80% of their acreage from conversion to agriculture, continue to lose ground.

Despite this, 2022 may also bring with it the risk of a severe botulism outbreak. Botulism flourishes under drought conditions. In 2020, an estimated 60,000 birds died on the Klamath Refuges due to a massive botulism outbreak. It was believed that 2021 could be even worse, but it appears that the refuges were so dry that many birds bypassed them altogether. This is hardly positive news—the waterfowl, waterbirds, and shorebirds that utilize the refuges need these wetlands for their survival, and the fact that they were bypassed has implications for the viability of the Pacific Flyway. We will again be working to help support Bird Ally X, which in past years has set up a field hospital for the Klamath Refuges to treat birds afflicted with botulism.

Photo courtesy of Bird Ally X.

Even the most limited progress can be elusive under these conditions. In 2021, the California Waterfowl Association purchased water rights that could have delivered 3,750 acre feet of water to the Lower Klamath Wildlife Refuge. It is a tiny fraction of the need, but it is progress, and the purchase of water rights represents one of the paths forward that may help sustain the refuges. However, agricultural irrigators have challenged the water transfer, and a stay has been issued by the Oregon Water Resources Department (OWRD). Bird Alliance of Oregon and others are urging OWRD to use its statutory powers to lift that stay on the basis that the stay would result in substantial harm to the refuges and the birds that depend on them.

Looking to the east, the news remains grim for birds. Lake Abert, a saline lake critical for shorebirds, is also suffering from severely reduced water levels exacerbated by years of inaction by the State of Oregon to address water rights and allocations. There is also a need for research at this site to better understand the changing dynamics of the water system. National Bird Alliance of Oregon played a lead role earlier this year in helping secure $1.25 million for the U.S. Geological Survey to establish a regional Integrated Water Availability Assessment study program in the Great Basin of the American West, which will benefit Lake Abert. National Bird Alliance of Oregon is also playing a lead role in advancing the bipartisan Saline Lake Ecosystems in the Great Basin States Program Act and dedicating longer-term funding. This legislation is sponsored by Senators Jeff Merkley of Oregon and Mitt Romney of Utah. Bird Alliance of Oregon is working with National Bird Alliance of Oregon, Oregon Natural Desert Association, and others to bring more attention to Lake Abert.

Bird Alliance of Oregon already has a strong presence and powerful collaborative relationships out at Malheur including full-time and seasonal staff on the ground. In the coming year, we will look at establishing remote staff in south central Oregon to increase our capacity on the Klamath Refuges and Lake Abert. The water situation in Southern Oregon / Northern California is truly a wicked problem—one that will not lend itself to simple or easy solutions. However, the string of refuges running along the Oregon-California border are critical to the survival of birds on the Pacific Flyway, and raising their priority is imperative.