H&N photo by Lee Juillerat
by Lee Juillerat, Herald and News 8/12/09
A dizzying array of stilts, bald eagles, yellow-headed blackbirds, pelicans, gulls, avocets, grebes, great blue herons, Caspian terns and more fly overhead, bunch-up in trees and shrubs, or float like rafts on wetlands.
Anglers sitting in parked boats cast for trout and enjoy the summer day while fishers of another sort, osprey, periodically hover, dive and, more often than not, fly away clutching a meal in their talons.
“I hope that’s not a sucker,” says Heather Hendrixson, the preserve director for the Williamson River Delta Preserve, a 7,500-acre area owned by The Nature Conservancy that mostly borders the Williamson River as its weaves its final miles to Upper Klamath Lake.
Protecting and providing good habitat for suckers is why the preserve exists. While it feels as though the wetlands and lake fringe habitat have always been here, steps taken over the past two years have significantly altered and reshaped the landscape.
In October 2007, nearly 100 tons of explosives were used to breach four levees that had been part of the former Tulana Farms operations.
Each of the breaches was a half-mile wide, a startling distance made real when viewing one of the openings marked by trees at both ends of the remaining levees.
Last October more openings were created in a less dramatic fashion with heavy equipment that unplugged sections of adjacent Goose Bay.
Crews have also scraped levees, leaving them low enough that they disappear during spring’s high water, and high enough that they emerge as mud flats or linear islands when Upper Klamath Lake’s water levels seasonally drop by mid-summer.
What can’t easily be seen are schools of young shortnosed and Lost River suckers, two endangered species.
Hendrixson, a fisheries biologist, terms efforts to improve the suckers’ habitat as a work in progress, but says indications point to success in improving the numbers of larval, or very young, fish.
“To say what effect on sucker populations is going be, we have to wait for a few years,” she says, adding that early studies indicate the endangered fish are living and breeding in areas reopened by breaching. “It’s been really neat, seeing the fish, seeing the vegetation and seeing all the birds come back.”
While the preserve spans 7,500 acres, about 5,500 acres have been flooded, including about 3,500 acres in wetlands. Another 800 acres remain in production. Leaseholder Jim Gallagher is growing organic alfalfa.
“It’s hard to appreciate the magnitude of the change,” says Mark Stern, the Klamath conservation area director, who’s been involved with efforts to return the area to its former conditions for more than a dozen years.
Historically, Stern says, the Williamson River Delta was a sprawling expanse of marsh and lake-fringe habitat. That changed in the 1950s when landowners began building levees to create farmlands.
In the 1990s, because of concerns about disappearing sucker populations, returning those lands to their natural condition became a goal of the Hatfield Upper Basin Working Group, a coalition of citizens and government groups formed to protect and restore wetlands.
The Nature Conservancy bought Tulana Farms in 1996 and neighboring Goose Bay in 1999.
Breaching the entire 22 miles of levees is economically impossible, so water flow studies were used to identify sections that could be blown or mechanically carved to best create wetlands.
“The wetlands have responded really well,” Stern says of the abundant birds, vegetation and, most importantly to him, suckers. “The ingredient seems to be, add water.”
There are no plans to breach more levees, but Hendrixson believes the delta will continue to naturally change.
“I don’t think they’ll every be an end-point where they say it’s complete because it’s always changing and evolving,” Hendrixson says.
The Nature Conservancy’s role
The Nature Conservancy paid $5,933.67 in Klamath County property taxes last year for the Williamson River Delta property, according to Stephen Anderson, the group’s communications director.
The Conservancy’s total tax payments to Klamath County, including the Sycan Marsh Preserve, were $9,526.11.
Klamath County commissioners had expressed a desire the properties that are part of the Williamson River Delta remain in private ownership to ensure property tax payments would continue. Although the Conservancy is eligible to not pay, Anderson says annual taxes are paid to benefit local communities.