In the Land of Fire and Ice, Water Determines Everything

by Teresa “Bird” Wicks, Eastern Oregon Biologist

For the estimated one billion birds that traverse the Pacific Flyway each year, the Malheur and Klamath National Wildlife Refuges are the most important refuges in Oregon. The wetland habitats that characterize these refuges, often surrounded by sagebrush, shrubsteppe, and dry grasslands, are literal oases in the high desert. They provide space for birds to rest and refuel while headed north or south, and for myriad bird, aquatic, and mammalian species to reproduce, survive, and thrive. But these refuges and their wetland habitats are at risk.

In Klamath, the primary threat is lack of water. Throughout the Klamath Basin, the demand for water drastically exceeds the supply. The refuge frequently goes completely dry, leaving migrating birds and other species in the lurch. In Malheur, the emerging threat is the dominance of invasive species—carp in Malheur Lake, and invasive and non-native grasses throughout the refuge. Together with climate change and the pressures of water-intensive agriculture, these threats are fundamentally altering these important ecosystems and their ability to support wildlife.

Understanding how we got here means taking a look at the hydrological, ecological, and social factors that have shaped these landscapes. While Klamath and Malheur play similar roles in supporting large populations of migrating and breeding waterfowl, waterbirds, and shorebirds, these two systems function very differently from each other.

Before settlement, vast areas of the Klamath Basin were covered in water and wetlands. And in the Harney Basin, much of the Silvies and Blitzen Valleys were covered in a mosaic of wetlands, waterlogged willow thickets, and dry meadows or shrubland. When settlers arrived in the West, the fertile soils of wetlands were targeted for draining (euphemistically called “reclamation”) and farming.
Water law in the West is grounded in the idea that water should be put to “beneficial use.” If a person is the first to put water to use in a given area, they are granted a more senior water right and can use every drop to which they are entitled before any junior water right holder can access the water. This, combined with massive reclamation projects, and programs like the Homestead Act that encouraged people to set up farms or ranches, led to agriculture dominating the landscape and to the large-scale loss of wetlands throughout the Pacific Flyway.

This loss of wetlands has been compounded in recent years by drought, invasive species, and our rapidly changing climate. Our goal for both Malheur and Klamath is to make sure these critical refuges—places our founder William Finley helped to establish over a century ago—are protected and restored for the benefit of the birds and other wildlife that depend on them.

Klamath

The Lower Klamath National Wildlife Refuge was established in 1908 as the nation’s first waterfowl refuge. The five other refuges in the Klamath National Wildlife Refuge Complex were established over a period of 70 years, the last being Bear Valley in 1978. The once expansive wetlands of the Klamath Basin were one of the most important stopover and breeding sites for waterfowl and waterbirds in the Pacific Flyway. This vast and thriving system supported wetland birds and fish, and also chinook salmon, which swam 257 miles from the ocean to spawn. Today, less than a third of the wetlands of the Klamath Basin remain.

Klamath’s wetlands historically functioned as a massive sponge, holding water from spring runoff or from large water years. As the river level dropped, water from the wetlands would feed into it, maintaining fresh water supply to the river through the drier months of the year.

Photo by Bob Sallinger

In this region, “reclamation” was largely associated with the creation of the massive Klamath Project. Irrigation projects in the Klamath area altered the natural flow of water, draining wetlands and severing their connection to the river. As surface water availability has declined, irrigators turned to groundwater to grow water-hungry crops like onions and alfalfa. The depletion of groundwater has led to further drying of remaining wetlands and the slumping of land above drained aquifers.

This has had tragic consequences for the Klamath refuges, which have the most junior water rights in the basin and thus no control over how much water they receive—or if they get any at all. The historic wetlands of Tule Lake and Lower Klamath have been reduced to impoundments or “sumps” that rely on irrigation districts to provide them with water. In low water years, water deliveries might come too late, crowding waterfowl into whatever water bodies remain, where they are vulnerable to recurring botulism outbreaks.

In Upper Klamath Lake, the loss of wetlands combined with static water levels and agricultural runoff have promoted blue-green algae growths so large they deplete the amount of oxygen available for fish.

With these challenges also come opportunities. We are adding staff capacity in the Klamath Basin so that we can work to change water management and reestablish connectivity between the river and the wetlands of the Klamath Basin to better support birds and fish, wetlands, and Tribes.

Photo courtesy of Bird Ally X.

Malheur

Malheur National Wildlife Refuge was established in 1908 to protect waterbirds, particularly egrets, from plume hunters. The refuge grew from its initial nearly 82,000 acres to more than 187,000 acres through expansions in 1935 and 1941. The Harney Basin is bounded to the west and east by fault blocks and high lava plateaus. Because water from the plateaus and mountains surrounding the basin flows to one low point (Malheur and Harney Lakes), the system is known as a closed-lake basin. As such, Malheur and Harney Lakes are highly ephemeral. Precipitation varies widely from year to year, which influences the size and depth of the wetland system.

Today, both agriculture and, increasingly, climate change have greatly influenced the water regime in the Harney Basin. Reclamation of wetlands here was associated with the development of cattle empires. Wetlands were drained, rivers were channeled, and upland grasslands were flooded. All in the name of beef production.

While flood irrigation on agricultural lands provides a large percentage of seasonal wetlands used by migrating waterfowl, waterbirds, and shorebirds, the combined effect of other agriculture practices alongside climate change are responsible for a massive loss of the semipermanent wetlands that breeding birds depend on.

In contrast to Klamath, Malheur National Wildlife Refuge possesses the vast majority of water rights to the Blitzen River and controls water movement through all of the refuge that lies in the Blitzen Valley between Steens Mountain and Malheur Lake. Conversely, the refuge has no recognized water rights from the Silvies River. Because of overallocation of water and climate change, the Silvies River does not reach Malheur Lake in most years.

While having access to the majority of water rights for the Blitzen River might seem like a benefit, the refuge is also constrained by Western water law and the need to manage for single species. Accordingly, the refuge moves and holds water across the landscape to maintain static habitat, which has contributed to a massive expansion of invasive grasses, including reed canarygrass, non-native cattail, and smooth brome.

American Avocet at Malheur, photo by Bruce MacGregor

Over the past eight years, reed canarygrass has rapidly expanded, resulting in monocultures, vast expanses of dense grass that often grows over six feet tall. Non-native cattails, which have been in the Harney Basin for decades, have begun to hybridize with native cattail. Hybrid cattail is exceptionally vigorous, withstanding drier conditions and mowing, and expanding into other ecological niches faster than either of its progenitor species. Similar to reed canarygrass, the hybrid cattail forms monocultures of vegetation rising 10 feet above the water. The last of the trio of invasive grasses is smooth brome, a dry-site-loving grass. Known for creating dense mats that suppress other vegetation, smooth brome is yet another invasive that inhibits growth of native grasses and forbs.

All three of these invasive grasses prohibit functional wetland habitat and create unique challenges to treating any of the other two invasives by water management alone. This is why Malheur National Wildlife Refuge staff, Bird Alliance of Oregon, and other partners are embarking on work to understand how to treat these invasive species without promoting another, and improving and conserving valuable nesting habitat for migratory birds.

Looking to the Future

Our vision for the future is a shift in wetland, water, and land management to encourage a return to wetland functionality that supports birds, wildlife, and human communities. This may mean allowing wetlands to become more elastic—moving, shrinking, and growing as water changes on the land. This may mean shifting how irrigation and water rights are conceptualized. But ultimately, our focus must remain on restoring hydrologic and ecological function so that these lands can continue to provide true refuge to birds and other wildlife long into the future.