No Water, No Wetlands, No Birds

by Teresa Wicks, Eastern Oregon Field Coordinator; and Bob Sallinger, Conservation Director

Last summer, more than 40,000 birds died from botulism caused by low water levels on Tule Lake and Lower Klamath National Wildlife Refuge. This year looks like it could be worse. A water crisis that has been building for decades is reaching a crescendo.

The Klamath River flows for 257 miles through Oregon and Northern California to its terminus at the Pacific Ocean. This massive watershed was once home to a beautifully complex system of untamed rivers, streams, and more than 350,000 acres of wetlands. The Klamath Basin provides critically important stopover habitat for 80% of waterfowl and 55-60% of waterbirds that migrate along the Pacific Flyway. It also provides critically important habitat for Chinook and Coho salmon that used to spawn up the Klamath into the Williamson and Sprague Rivers, and the c’waam and koptu (Lost River and short-nosed suckers, respectively) that spawn in the shallow water and tule marshes along the lake edges of the Klamath Basin. The Klamath Basin has appropriately been called the “Everglades of the West.” When Bird Alliance of Oregon was founded in 1902, one of our first priorities was establishing the Lower Klamath National Wildlife Refuge as a bulwark against the threat of rapid conversion of wetlands for agriculture.

Since time immemorial, the birds, fish, plants, and ecosystems of the Klamath River and associated wetlands and tributaries have been sacred to the seven Klamath River Tribes: the Yurok, Hoopa, Karuk, Shasta, Yahooskin, Modoc, and Klamath. Today these Tribes are federally recognized as the Klamath (Klamath, Modoc, and Yahooskin), Karuk, Hoopa, Quartz Valley, Resighini Rancheria, and Yurok Tribes.

The Klamath River Tribes have a long-term reciprocal relationship with the Chinook and Coho salmon that spawn in the river, though salmon have not traversed beyond Iron Gate Dam since it was built in 1964. The Klamath Tribe also depends on the c’waam and koptu that live and spawn in the Klamath Basin. These fish species need ample water in the system: cool, deep water in the river for salmon, shallow water and tule marshes along lakes and streams for juvenile suckers, and deep lake areas for adult suckers. The Klamath River Tribes have used their water rights to ensure that salmon, c’waam, and koptu are prioritized with the limited water available.

Unfortunately, the inception of the Klamath Irrigation Project in 1906 precipitated a massive land conversion from wetlands to agricultural lands, a change feared by conservationists in the early 20th century. Today, more than 80% of the historic Klamath wetlands have been lost, the Klamath River has been dammed, and the basin’s limited water has been vastly overallocated. Its waterways are degraded by grazing and pesticides. Even on Lower Klamath and Tule Lake National Wildlife Refuges, more than 22,000 acres have been set aside for commercial agribusiness operations. In some years, refuge wetlands go completely dry while refuge lands leased to farmers get water to grow potatoes and onions. The land’s natural hydrology has largely been replaced by a system of canals controlled by the Bureau of Reclamation. This system includes refuge lakes, wetlands, and marshes. As the impacts of climate change become more and more apparent, drought has increasingly become the norm.

White-faced Ibis, photo by Tara Lemezis

This looks to be one of the worst water years on record. In May, the Bureau of Reclamation canceled a flush (an increase in flow) from Upper Klamath Lake to benefit outbound salmon, and for the first time since 1907 shut off flows to the project’s main canal. This year, Upper Klamath Lake levels are so low that c’waam and koptu are likely to struggle to survive the year, juvenile salmon downriver have already experienced a massive die-off associated with warm-water-driven diseases, and no water will be sent through to the marshes and wetlands of the Klamath refuges, which once depended only on their connection to the river for survival.

This is following one of the largest botulism outbreaks in refuge history in 2020. Botulism is a natural toxin produced by the bacterium Clostridium botulinum. Shallow stagnant water provides an optimal environment for it to proliferate. It attaches to nerve endings, where it causes weakness, lethargy, and the inability to hold up the head or fly. Many waterfowl simply drown, and the presence of carcasses in turn exacerbates the outbreak. There have been multiple major botulism outbreaks on the refuge in recent years. Birds nesting and migrating through Klamath this year will find precious little water. Those that do find it may also find themselves in a death trap, despite the refuge’s efforts to concentrate and hold as much deep water as possible while drying out areas likely to host a botulism outbreak.

This year, water levels are so low that basin-wide waterbird populations are the lowest in settler history. The water and wetlands that sustained people and wildlife for eons are at risk of ecological collapse.

Western Grebe, photo by Patty McGann

The situation is bleak, but perhaps this crisis will also be a catalyst for change. This path starts with protecting the sovereignty of the Klamath River Tribes and upholding their treaty rights. There is also progress on the four Klamath River hydroelectric dams, which are slated to start removal in 2023, marking the largest dam removal project in U.S. history and opening up hundreds of miles of salmon habitat. For the refuges, it perhaps begins with more strongly asserting their own water rights, purchasing available water rights from willing sellers, and addressing the on-refuge lease land farming. Finally, perhaps it is also time to reinitiate a multi-stakeholder process to chart a new course forward for people, fish, and birds. This has been tried before. In 2010, many stakeholders signed on to the Klamath Basin Restoration Agreements. We had deep concerns about the adequacy of water provided to the refuge in these agreements, but regardless, Congress failed to move it forward. Perhaps it is time to reconvene and try again. The current situation is not working for anyone: not for people, not for fish, and not for birds.