irrigators empty Tule Lake to improve habitat, fight disease
Herald and News 6/12/21 by Alex Schwartz
Tule Lake Sump 1A is mostly dry after most of its
water was drained to Sump 1B to try and prevent the spread of
botulism. Eventually, refuge managers will try to refill Sump 1A
and create a better environment for waterfowl.
— Once spanning 100,000 acres at the foot of the Medicine
Lake Volcano, it’s unlikely that Tule Lake has been as low
as it is now for millions of years.
What used to be
a massive network of open water and fringe wetlands is now
essentially a giant mud puddle, spelling trouble for
migratory birds that have used it as a rest stop for
thousands of years.
at least for now? Dry it up.
The U.S. Fish
and Wildlife Service, which manages th Tule Lake National
Wildlife Refuge and Tulelake Irrigation District, are
working with waterfowl conservation organization Ducks
Unlimited to move as much as 12,000 acre-feet of water
between two large wetland units on the refuge. Biologists
and irrigators alike hope the undertaking will give birds a
better chance at surviving this summer’s historic drought.
Bureau of Reclamation drained much of Tule Lake in the early
20th Century to make way for Klamath Project farmland, the
refuge was essentially divided into four quadrants. Sump 1A,
in the northwest, is approximately 9,000 acres of open water
and fringe wetlands at the mouth of Lost River.
southwest and northeast sumps are both made up of
agricultural leaselands, where farmers operate in
cooperation with refuge goals to provide habitat and food
for migratory birds. Sump 1B, in the southeast, comprises a
little over 3,000 acres of permanent wetlands, connected to
Sump 1A through a large canal known as the “English
along the road to the north entrance of Lava Beds National
Monument, Sump 1A is what most visitors to the area would
consider “Tule Lake.” For decades it was mostly open water,
with a few marshy areas near where the Lost River enters
from the north.
By mid-June in
2021, almost all the water was gone in that area, and the
large cracks characteristic of severe drought ran through
the dry lakebed.
“In the last
thousand years it has never looked like that,” said Tulelake
farmer John Crawford.
director of operations for Ducks Unlimited’s western region,
said while the open water of Sump 1A may have looked like an
avian paradise because of the sheer number of birds there in
past years, it did not provide them much by way of habitat
“We call it a
dead marsh. It’s not productive,” McCreary said. “Birds just
go there to land and rest.”
conversely, had become veritable wetland Eden after being
drawn down last year. Food and habitat for a variety of bird
life cycle needs is growing in abundance this summer.
Wildlife has been trying to achieve similar
results for Sump 1A, which
has been kept chronically wet even in drought years.
But the project
would have been costly, especially considering the fact that
most of the Klamath Project’s tailwater ends up in the sump
and would have to be diverted.
This year, that
was the one thing TID and refuge managers didn’t have to
worry about, as deep drought and ESA considerations combined
to create conditions necessary to draw down the massive body
“Sump 1A has
never had that luxury until this year,” McCreary said.
“Unfortunately, it’s taking a zero allocation out of the
Project to get to this point.”
The hope is
that removing the water from Sump 1A will bring new life to
that cracked earth. Despite their name, McCreary said
wetlands actually need some dry years to remain healthy.
Plants like smartweed and goosefoot, some of ducks’ favorite
foods, don’t germinate when they’re consistently inundated
with silty water, as they have been in Sump 1A.
manager of Tulelake Irrigation District, said he expects the
barren landscape to look very different in a month or so.
like a meadow,” he said.
germination of wetland plants is only a secondary goal of
the drawdown, which is being done mainly to mitigate a
botulism outbreak during what’s expected to be a long, hot,
On the south
end of the sump, conditions are a little more concerning.
Tiny amounts of water still remain across a wide area,
forming what’s essentially muck that only a bird could stand
in without sinking. Once temperatures increase later this
month, conditions there will be ripe for a botulism outbreak
if more water isn’t removed.
dormant in wetland soils and lakebeds but awakens when water
is low and calm, and temperatures are hot. Birds contract
the bacteria through maggots and become paralyzed to varying
degrees. Once they’re unable to move their heads, they’ll
flop over in the shallow water and eventually drown. More
maggots feed on the carcasses of birds that have succumbed
to the disease, starting the cycle all over again.
have two options to mitigate botulism outbreaks: Give the
area an infusion of cool, clear water or drain it completely
to dry out the bacteria’s habitat. In 2021, the former would
be a literal pipe dream.
to eliminate as much of this as we can,” Crawford said.
“Unfortunately, the birds love this. They love to be able to
stand instead of swim. And that is a recipe for botulism.”
year, Tule Lake and Lower Klamath National Wildlife Refuges
experienced one of their worst
botulism outbreaks in history,
which killed at least 60,000 ducks and sent thousands of
waterfowl to Bird Ally X’s duck hospital in Arcata, Calif.,
which struggled to handle the influx of patients with
limited funding and staff.
addition to assisting with the Sump 1A drawdown, McCreary
said Ducks Unlimited is also working with Fish and Wildlife
to provide more funding to the duck hospital in advance of
this year’s botulism season. Bird Ally X is also seeking donations for
this year’s botulism response.
But he said the
drawdown should give refuge managers a serious head start in
combatting outbreaks this summer.
is huge. It’s absolutely the best thing that could be
happening for controlling the botulism,” he said.
In May, after
the English Channel had been opened and the two sumps
reached equilibrium, TID began using one of its existing
pumps to transfer more water from 1A to 1B. About 150 C’waam
(Lost River suckers) were also moved from Sump 1A to Sump 1B
prior to the drawdown to comply with Endangered Species Act
dried out last year, 1B’s lakebed was more compacted and,
therefore, able to be filled deeper than 1A, Kirby said.
Evaporation willing, biologists hope the sump will remain
deep enough to avoid the onset of botulism outside the
shorelines, where triage crews can more easily access sick
or dead birds and remove them from the system.
Kirby said it
was tough to figure out exactly how much water he was
working with in Sump 1A, given how much silt was in it. It
got to a point where he couldn’t really tell where the water
stopped and the lakebed began. The only tool he had to
estimate the lake’s volume was a 1986 area capacity curve,
which likely didn’t take into account how much silt would
have accumulated in the lake over so many decades.
what the bottom of this thing really looks like,” Kirby
He and refuge
biologists have since settled on about 12,000 acre-feet, and
there’s actually a concern that will not even be enough
water to fill Sump 1B.
Fish and Wildlife may use a “floating excavator” to dig
channels in the muddy lakebed and allow the thin, puddled
water still remaining to flow to the pump’s intake and on to
It turns out
that even amid one of the Klamath Basin’s worst droughts in
recorded history, it’s proving difficult to get the very
last drops of water out of Sump 1A.
“We’re down to
the point of where we have to get creative,” Kirby said.
some of Sump 1A still has the ability to fill a ditch
delivering water to the Southwest Sump, allowing more bird
food to be grown on those leaselands. Farmers there have
contracts with the refuge to leave behind a certain
percentage of grain in their fields after harvest for the
express purpose of migratory bird snacks.
district and the refuge are in a race against time. Their
goal is to have Sump 1A as dry as possible by July 1, when
biologists typically go on alert for botulism outbreaks.
expect that there will be some level of a botulism outbreak,
but the amount of shallow water will be less,” McCreary
there’s the concern for next year, when Sump 1A will have to
be refilled after the plants germinate. Kirby said that
unless different management decisions are made, he’ll be
hard-pressed to put water back on the lakebed and complete
the project’s long-term goal of reviving Sump 1A’s wetlands.
“I don’t know
where this water is going to come from if we don’t have one
of the best winters in the period of record,” Kirby said.
this kind of project is part of a broader way of thinking
about Tule Lake Refuge, and the Klamath Basin as a whole. In
the early 2000s, refuge stakeholders developed a plan called
“sump rotation,” where the four quadrants would rotate
between wetlands and agricultural lands.
“When we look
at the basin as a whole, we see that there’s not really an
ecosystem perspective about how things are working out
there,” he said. “When we look at an ecosystem solution, it
includes salmon, suckers, farmers, waterfowl and wetlands.
We think there’s a solution out there that can satisfy all
This process is
already happening in the basin at a smaller scale through
the Walking Wetlands program, where farmers flood irrigate
their fields and leave them as wetlands — providing critical
bird habitat — and plant organic crops after the water has
been drained. Instead of a single field rotating in and out
of wetland status, managers would do that with entire sumps
on the refuge.
you’re doing Walking Wetlands on a very large scale,”
McCreary said. “That maintains a pretty strong, robust
wetland system down there.”
But there’s a
lot of irrigation infrastructure needed to make sump
rotation a reality, like drainages and laterals, that don’t
exist on Sumps 1A and 1B. Ducks Unlimited is still working
on a feasibility study for the concept.
a Ducks Unlimited biologist who has been helping TID and FWS
on the ground, thinks the Sump 1A drawdown is somewhat of a
“proof of concept” for sump rotation, allowing stakeholders
to see what’s possible under a new refuge water management
that there is some possibility with existing
infrastructure,” she said. “Obviously we’re going to need
additional infrastructure, but it allows us to see what the
bottom of 1A looks like, how you can move water and where
you can move it.”
farmed in the Walking Wetlands program and on refuge
leaselands, said he’s all for treating the Tule Lake
ecosystem more holistically. Beyond contributing to some of
the most productive bird habitats on the Pacific Flyway,
farming in tandem with wetland habitats means he would get
to use less pesticides and fertilizer and grow crops on some
of the world’s most productive soil.
expensive,” Crawford said. “Is it a good idea? Darn right
it’s a good idea.”
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