Massive but controversial restoration
project in the works for Upper Klamath Lake (Barnes and Agency
Schwartz December 18, 2021
The U.S. Fish
and Wildlife Service is evaluating a major restoration
project on the shore of Upper Klamath Lake that could
benefit species both above and below the water’s surface. If
carried out, it would be the largest wetland restoration
effort ever attempted for Upper Klamath Lake.
to a draft environmental
this summer, the USFWS hopes to breach levees that currently
separate the Barnes and Agency Lake units of Upper Klamath
National Wildlife Refuge from the western shore of Agency
Lake, the northern arm of Upper Klamath Lake. Doing so would
reconnect and restore more than 14,000 acres of historic
fringe wetlands back to the lake.
diked and drained by the Bureau of Reclamation beginning in
the 1940s, the wetlands that became Barnes and Agency Lake
ranches hosted grazing cattle during summer and pumped water
to flood-irrigate pasture in winter. Fourmile and Sevenmile
creeks, which originally flowed into the lake through the
wetlands, were channelized and funneled into canals
bordering the current property.
purchased the plots in 1998 as water storage areas, allowing
the creeks to flood them during the winter, then pumping
that water into the lake in the spring to augment the
Klamath Project’s water supply. However, pumping costs
proved too expensive for Klamath Project irrigators and
Reclamation abandoned the storage operation in 2013,
transferring the land to Fish and Wildlife.
Since then, FWS
has seasonally flooded the former ranches to produce
emergent wetland habitat for bird species. According to the
EA, more than 80,000 waterfowl have been counted molting on
Upper Klamath Refuge in good years.
Refuge Complex Manager Greg Austin said the proposed
project, which has been in the works for more than a decade,
would provide a host of benefits for the lake ecosystem.
“We spent a lot
of time looking at what we wanted to get out of it,” Austin
said. “The lake does need this. The lake historically was
surrounded by wetlands, and we’re missing a big percentage
of them now.”
In addition to
being ideal bird habitat, the wetlands also filtered
nutrients from creeks as they entered the lake (and from the
lake itself as its water circulated through them),
sequestering phosphorus into rich peat soils. They also
provided habitat for numerous fish species, from redband
trout to suckers, and smoothed the peaks and troughs of
drought and flood by slowly absorbing and releasing water.
The loss of the
majority of Upper Klamath Lake’s fringe wetlands has left it
without these crucial sponges and filters, leading to toxic
algae outbreaks that tank water quality and stress out
endangered C’waam and Koptu, who later succumb to predation
or fish disease.
can’t manage the behavior of these wild species, Austin said
they can work to restore their former habitats and provide
the space and necessary functions for ecosystem recovery.
The Barnes-Agency project hopes to accomplish just that.
“If you set the
table, they’re going to show up,” he said.
a fish biologist with the Klamath Tribes, said previous
restoration efforts around Upper Klamath Lake helped inform
the preliminary design of the Barnes-Agency project.
River Delta restoration led by The Nature Conservancy, for
example, removed dikes that had separated thousands of acres
of wetland from the lake at the mouth of the Williamson
River in the mid-2000s. However, because the farmland that
had replaced the wetlands had subsided over many decades,
much of the re-flooded area was too deep for aquatic plants
to take root. Additionally, full removal of the dikes
allowed winds and lake currents to influence the restored
area, further inhibiting the re-establishment of wetland
the preferred plan for Barnes-Agency outlined in the EA
doesn’t plan to remove the dikes outright. Forming gaps in
the barriers at key points will allow the free movement of
water and fish while keeping those physical disturbances
out. Once peat accumulates over many decades, then the dikes
could be fully removed like they were on the Williamson
“That was an
unintended consequence of total removal of the levee versus
what we’re looking at here, which is partial breaches,”
Buettner said. “You don’t get this big expanse of water that
would be exposed to wind and wave action.”
USFWS plans to flood additional lands north of the
Barnes-Agency units that were donated and put under
easements with the refuge. These sit at a higher elevation
than the units to the south, making them ideal emergent
wetland habitat. Austin said a little less than half of the
project will restore these seasonally dry habitats, while
the areas closer to the lake will become open water where
wocus and other submerged aquatic plants could grow.
also includes stream restoration on Fourmile and Sevenmile
creeks, freeing them from their canals and directing them
back into the sloughs, where the water will spread out
through floating jungles that will absorb its nutrients
before it reaches the lake. A potential 2,000-acre area on
the project’s northeast flank, engineered in partnership
with Trout Unlimited, would do the same thing to
agricultural tailwater. Acting as a treatment wetland, it
could accept drainage from ranches in the Wood River Valley,
scrubbing out much of the runoff’s nutrients before
releasing it back to the lake.
envisions this project to create an area similar to Pelican
Bay, several miles to the south. Thanks to abundant wetlands
and an infusion of high-quality water from several shoreline
springs, Pelican Bay has become an area of refuge for
endangered adult suckers fleeing water quality declines in
the lake associated with cyanobacteria blooms. As the
populations age without surviving young to replace them,
biologists want to keep existing adult suckers alive for as
long as possible.
“You could have
a similar situation here where you’ve got these cold,
clear-water creeks coming in, creating a Pelican Bay type of
situation,” Buettner said.
Tribes are working to limit excess nutrient loading on the
tributaries to Upper Klamath Lake to improve water quality
for C’waam and Koptu, but it’s a long game engaging a
multitude of private landowners, federal agencies and
restoration groups on miles of river. Buettner said this
project could make a big dent in the lake’s phosphorus
loading in a much shorter amount of time because it’s under
“In terms of
trying to get back to a more historic form and function,
that’s the important thing to do,” he said.
Barnes-Agency project isn’t without its potential impacts.
Through the National Environmental Policy Act process,
several people representing Klamath Project irrigators and
irrigation districts have written in opposition to the draft
EA, pointing out that it didn’t adequately analyze how
expanding the size Upper Klamath Lake by 14,000 acres could
affect water management in the Klamath Basin.
USFWS did model
how the project would change the lake’s total volume in
water years 1981-2019, finding that, on average, usable
water storage increased by up 17,183 acre-feet. Over that
period, the analysis found no years in which the creation of
more open water and wetland habitat, though leading to
increased evapotranspiration, reduced the lake’s storage
project irrigators have pointed out that even if storage
increases, there could still be constraints on who that
water is available to — or whether it becomes available at
that the project would mean that there is more water in
storage,” wrote Klamath Water Users Association Executive
Director Paul Simmons in his comment letter. “This does not
translate directly into improved water availability or
the concern is that a larger Upper Klamath Lake will take
longer to fill and require more water to do so. The drop in
lake levels resulting from the initial dike breaching aside,
a separate analysis commissioned by Reclamation found that,
in low water years since 1981, having a greater storage
volume actually resulted in reductions to both the Klamath
Project’s allocation and the amount of water released from
Iron Gate Dam into the Klamath River.
because the three demands on Upper Klamath Lake — spawning
habitat for suckers, river flows for salmon and irrigation
diversions for the Klamath Project — all converge in the
spring. Had Reclamation’s current Interim Operations Plan
for 2021 been in effect throughout the past 40 years, the
analysis they commissioned found that project allocations
would have been generally lower in drier years and higher in
wetter years due to the agency either hitting or missing
Upper Klamath Lake’s spring target level.
the Bureau’s analysis, the project would receive an
additional 35,000 acre-feet at maximum and lose about 21,000
acre-feet at minimum. However, to fill the lake in time to
meet ESA requirements for suckers, river flows had to be
reduced in all year types, with the greatest reductions to
Iron Gate releases felt in the late winter and spring.
That’s exactly when downriver biologists stress the need for
flushing flows to dilute spores of the fish parasite C.
shasta plaguing outmigrating salmon.
manager of Klamath Irrigation District, wrote in his comment
letter that he expected the National Marine Fisheries
Service, which authors the Biological Opinion for threatened
Klamath River Coho salmon, would find those flow reductions
“unacceptable” and require further cuts to project
“It is more
likely, during consultation efforts, the burden of this
action will be squarely placed upon the shoulders of Klamath
Project irrigators,” Souza wrote.
Simmons both made it clear that they don’t have any issues
with the Barnes-Agency project’s concept, not disputing that
it could bring real benefits to birds and endangered
suckers. But they said they couldn’t support implementing a
project that might significantly reduce water availability
to irrigators in some years without adjusting the way water
is allocated in the basin.
“If we’re going
to start doing projects that take away water from one
interest, that needs to occur as part of a more
comprehensive package where there’s clear quid-pro-quos,”
Simmons said. “It’s like, ‘Oh, we’re out to torpedo it.’
Well, that’s not our goal, but we don’t want to get hurt.
Let’s try to solve problems, not create new ones — or bigger
acknowledged its potential downstream impacts due to the
basin’s water management setup, Austin said modeling how the
Barnes-Agency project would influence Reclamation’s
operations wasn’t within the EA’s scope because the refuge
doesn’t have control over how the Bureau will allocate
water. It’s difficult to predict how the expansion of Upper
Klamath Lake would impact management decisions because those
management decisions are frequently in flux.
“You don’t have
a crystal ball of what might go into the next iteration (of
the Biological Opinion),” Austin said.
said USFWS plans to closely review the Reclamation analysis
and have a dialogue with water users and downstream
stakeholders about the impacts it discusses. He said the
goal of NEPA’s public comment component is to alert federal
agencies to gaps in their evaluations.
what you hope for,” Austin said. “Usually, we write NEPA and
we’ll get two or three comments. This is one that a lot of
people are interested in.”
both Services are currently in ESA consultation to develop
the Bureau’s next operations plan, and Buettner said that
plan could potentially accommodate the potential for a
bigger Upper Klamath Lake, similarly to how the BiOps
incorporate the impending removal of four dams on the
Austin said the
project still has not undergone an engineering design, let
alone moved past the NEPA process, so conversations about
its potential impacts will likely continue as agencies
analyze the data on hand. He said USFWS acknowledges the
need not to rush a project of this scale, regardless of the
“We want to
make sure we’re doing the right thing,” Austin said. “It’s
going to take a little more time — a lot of eyes are on it.”
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