KLAMATH FALLS, Ore. — A large-scale
wetland restoration project in the Upper Klamath National
Wildlife Refuge is raising concern about the possibility of
exacerbating future water shortages for farmers and ranchers
already grappling with extreme drought.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
wants to rehabilitate more than 14,000 acres of historical
wetlands on the north end of Upper Klamath and Agency lakes
in south-central Oregon, providing greater habitat for
migratory birds and fish.
Upper Klamath National Wildlife Refuge
is part of the greater Klamath Basin National Wildlife
Refuge Complex. It is a key stop for migrating birds along
the Pacific Flyway, which extends from Alaska to Patagonia
in South America.
Greg Austin, the refuge manager, said
the proposed wetlands restoration would not only augment
nesting habitat for geese, ducks and pelicans, but also
increase the annual water storage capacity in Upper Klamath
Lake by 73,000 acre-feet.
“We’re pretty excited about this,”
Austin said. “The community has been looking for new water
storage for years.”
Klamath Project irrigators, however,
argue that increased storage may not necessarily mean more
water is available for agriculture. In fact, they say, it
could mean the opposite.
Expanding the overall surface area of
Upper Klamath Lake would mean it actually takes more water
to meet minimum levels for endangered sucker fish, said Paul
Simmons, executive director of the Klamath Water Users
Increasing the size of the lake also
means there could be more water lost to evapotranspiration,
resulting in a net loss to water users downstream, Simmons
Water in Upper Klamath Lake is managed
for multiple benefits, including sucker fish endemic to the
lake; the Klamath Project; Klamath River salmon runs; and
five other Klamath Basin wildlife refuge sites that make up
the federal complex stretching into Northern California.
“Doing these things in isolation,
without regard for how they affect other users, is just not
going to get anybody anywhere in the environment we’re in,”
The Fish and Wildlife Service outlined
its proposal in a draft environmental assessment released in
September. A 45-day public comment period expired Nov. 13.
Under the agency’s “preferred
alternative,” the USFWS would breach three levees
surrounding the Barnes and Agency Lake units of the Upper
Klamath National Wildlife Refuge, about 30 miles north of
Klamath Falls, Ore.
The units were historically fringe
wetlands until levees were built between the 1940s and
1990s, disconnecting them from Upper Klamath Lake for cattle
grazing and haying. They were acquired by the USFWS between
2006 and 2010 and incorporated into the wildlife refuge.
In addition to breaching levees, the
project calls for restoring the historical route and
floodplain for Sevenmile Creek, which was previously altered
and channelized for farming.
Finally, the USFWS received an
anonymous donation of 2,037 acres within the project area in
December 2020, known as the Eisenberg Unit. That land will
be managed as a “nutrient mitigation wetlands,” soaking up
nitrogen and phosphorous from upstream farms and ranches
before it enters Upper Klamath Lake.
“It’s going to help with both water
quantity and water quality,” Austin said. “The lake needs
this kind of restoration.”
The KWUA, which represents 1,200
family farms and ranches, submitted comments opposing the
project, along with the Klamath Irrigation District and
Klamath Drainage District. They contend the feds did not
properly weigh impacts on downstream users in the
Gene Souza, KID manager and executive
director, said the additional lands placed under shallow
water will likely improve some aquatic and waterfowl
habitat, though greater evapotranspiration will take more
water away from district patrons and potentially alter the
timing of irrigation season.
“Crops are best irrigated in the
spring for the best yield and reduced water consumption,”
Souza wrote in his comments to the USFWS. “Water delivered
too late to crops unnecessarily increases water use and
The Klamath Project received zero
water allocation from Upper Klamath Lake in 2021 amid a
punishing drought, leading to wind erosion in dry fields,
irrigation canals filled with noxious weeds and a domestic
wells running dry due to a lack of groundwater recharge in
Simmons said water users reached out
to MBK Engineers in Sacramento, Calif., to gauge the
Agency-Barnes restoration project’s impact on downstream
water supply using the Bureau of Reclamation’s Klamath
Project interim operating plan.
According to the preliminary data, the
project would reduce average water deliveries from Upper
Klamath Lake for agriculture by 3,000 acre-feet per year.
Deliveries for the other Klamath Basin
wildlife refuges would drop by 1,000 acre-feet annually, and
in-stream flows for the Klamath River would drop by an
average of 34,000 acre-feet.
“To the extent that there is less
water available for the river ... we would be concerned the
Project would end up sucking up the whole burden,” Simmons
Austin disputed those figures, saying
the USFWS analysis shows the project would yield more usable
stored water than what is lost to evapotranspiration in all
“We’re going to see an increase in
usable storage,” he said.
What remains to be seen is how exactly
the water would be used. The Bureau of Reclamation, Fish and
Wildlife Service and National Marine Fisheries Service are
currently renegotiating water management plans for the
Klamath Project to protect both Lost River and shortnose
suckers in Upper Klamath Lake, as well as coho salmon in the
Any construction will likely not break
ground from another 4-5 years, Austin said. Until then, he
said the agency is committed to working through the users’
“We want to do the right thing,” he
said. “It’s going to take some time.”
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