Our Klamath Basin Water Crisis
Upholding rural Americans' rights to grow food,
own property, and caretake our wildlife and natural resources.
Growing crops and ducks
Integrating wetlands into commercial crop rotation in the basin
By Lance Waldren, Pioneer Press August 15, 2007
Pioneer Press photo by Lance Waldren After only a few years, wetlands with a stable water level become filled with bulrush and tules causing them to lose their effectiveness as wildlife habitat.
KLAMATH BASIN - Millions of migratory birds use the Klamath Basin as one of the main stops on the Pacific Flyway. This is one of the many reasons that make this area so special. Stand outside on an early morning in the spring and watch as hundreds of thousands of geese leave the Tule Lake and Lower Klamath Refuge to descend on the fields of the Basin.
The Klamath Basin has some of the most fertile crop land in the nation and it is this land that the birds devour before traveling north. But the feast they enjoy every morning comes at a price. According to Tulelake farmer, Steve Kandra, the spring migration costs him approximately one ton of yield per acre on his alfalfa fields.
Finding a way for the birds and farmers to not only co-exist but for both to thrive is a big order. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in the lower basin has come up with some innovative and productive solutions in which both birds and farmers prosper.
The Tule lake and Lower Klamath Refuges were established in 1928. They are now guided by legislation adopted in 1964, the Kuchel Act. This controversial legislation mandated a coexistence of wetland wildlife habitat and commercial agriculture, a combination of purposes that is unique within the National Wildlife Refuge System. The refuges were to maintain wetland wildlife habitat while simultaneously maintaining a 22,000 acre lease land farming program.
According to refuge managers, after decades of stabilized water levels and sedimentation, the productivity and diversity of the wetlands declined. Continuous farming had also increased the need for expensive crop inputs, such as fertilizer and chemicals, to maintain yields. In the early 1990's, the Fish and Wildlife realized new strategies were needed to manage these land uses.
"Stability is the death of a marsh," Refuge Manager Ron Cole, told the Pioneer Press. "They become bulrush and cattail jungles, which are sterile and are no longer productive"
The refuge began a small pilot program in which they began drying up portions of the "bulrush jungles" and converting them into farmland. In turn they would flood the same amount of farm ground and turn it back in wetlands. They named the program "walking wetlands" and the name is now becoming a part of conventional agricultural practices.
What they found was exciting for both the farmers and refuge managers. The farm land quickly reseeded itself with marsh grasses and within the year became very productive wetlands again. The wetlands which were farmed, produced huge crops without the use of fertilizers or chemicals.
The refuge has since expanded this program with amazing success.
"When they first drained Tule lake, the farmers were shocked at the size of the crops," said Sid Staunton, Tulelake farmer. "With the walking wetland program we have lowered our crop input (fertilizer and chemical use) and increased our yield while providing habitat for wildlife."
Staunton and his two brothers farm ground around the refuges and participate in the refuge lease land program. The Staunton family is part of the original Tulelake homesteaders and began farming here in 1929.
The Stauntons have been so impressed with the program they have converted 93 acres of their private land into rotating wetlands with 143 acres going in next year.
With a two year rotation as a wetland the ground is clean and certifiable as organic. There is also a 40 percent increase in nutrients and it is weed free. The farmers have also seen as much as a 95 percent control of diseases such as white rot in onions. The white rot gets in the ground and onions can no longer be grown there.
The walking wetland program also provides a more diverse habitat for many other species of wildlife.
"Since we started this program we have seen as many as 30 new species of protected shore birds in the refuge. I have been here for 18 years and have not seen these birds on the refuge before," said Dave Mauser, USFWS Biologist. "The program is the greatest thing since sliced bread for the wildlife."
Since the start of this project, 5,500 acres are now part of the walking wetlands program. 2,000 acres are on the refuge and 3,500 acres of wetlands are now scattered around the basin on private ground.
According to refuge manager Ron Cole, they are working in a cooperative partnership with groups such as Ducks Unlimited, Oregon Audubon, California Waterfowl Association, Irrigation Districts, Universities, Klamath Water Users and several other federal agencies. We are making huge progress instead of drawing lines, Cole told the Pioneer Press.
When you take an all or nothing approach you only end up in court. I am excited when a basin farmer comes here and wants to put in private wetlands. These are good biological decisions, he said.
"The refuge is a large part of the Klamath Water Project," said Greg Additngton, Klamath Water Users Association. "The lease lands surrounding the refuge provide a buffer between people and the wildlife and if you want something to grow, whether potatoes, onions or ducks, let a farmer do it. It's what they do."
Wetlands and agricultural lands can be integrated in ways that maintain ecological integrity as well as the economic well being and sustainability of surrounding rural communities.
Benefits of such a program could extend far beyond the Refuge and the Klamath Basin.
Pioneer Press photo by Lance Waldren Refuge manager Ron Cole speaks to a group of Skagit Valley farmers and members of the Nature Conservancy during a tour of the walking wetlands.
A group of farmers from the Skagit Valley recently traveled to the Tulelake Wildlife refuge to tour the program. The group was organized and led by Kevin Morris of the Nature Conservancy in Washington State.
Morris is excited about the program and is looking at cooperative ways to promote sustainable agriculture and increase wetland habitat for wildlife in their area.
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