Wood River rancher sells
water right to help downstream refuges
and News by Alex Schwartz 3/16/21
A wetland unit at Lower Klamath National Wildlife Refuge. When
water doesn’t flow to these units during the summer, their water
levels can get low enough for botulism outbreaks to form. This
year, late summer water deliveries from the Klamath Project have
prevented current outbreaks from worsening.
A unique deal
between ranchers and wildlife advocates may at long last
bring a reliable water supply to Lower Klamath National
Wildlife Refuge — and the wetlands and birds that depend on
was largely drained in the early 20th Century, the mosaic of
known as Lower Klamath Lake has
relied on water from the Klamath Irrigation Project to grow
food and provide suitable habitat for millions of migrating
birds along the Pacific Flyway each year. Wetlands in the
Klamath Basin support nearly 80% of the Pacific Flyway’s
migratory waterfowl during the spring and fall.
for the previous 100,000 acres of agricultural land
acquisition by the U.S. government:
ranch at a time, Government agencies and TNC promised
that these farm and ranch acquisitions would save water,
improve water quality, benefit fish, and store water for
the rest of the irrigators and put more water into the
Klamath River. The opposite is true..."
KBC NOTE: Our
refuges were designed to receive water after it was
pumped through the Klamath Reclamation Project.
This amount was
substantial until the government-mandated instream-required-water-for-fish
skyrocketed. Water for fish = less or no water for
birds and 489 species of wildlife, and farmers. Thus, when the Klamath Project gets
it's full delivery, the runoff water goes to the
refuges. This Project water historically was in a closed
basin until Reclamation blasted a tunnel through Sheepy
Ridge to supply Lower Klamath Refuge and keep farms from
flooding. Pacific Power raised Project power rate more than
2000%, and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service refuses to pay
the $100's of thousands power costs for D Plant to pump
water into Lower Klamath Refuges from the Project.
traditionally supported breeding, molting and feeding birds
year-round, but a lack of water over the past two decades
has made it nearly inhospitable for avian visitors during
the late summer and early fall.
refuge sits at the bottom of the water rights pecking order
within the Project, it’s the last recipient of water
diverted from Upper Klamath Lake—if it gets any at all. The
reduction in the Klamath Basin’s water availability over the
past 20 years has hit particularly hard here: Lower Klamath
received an average of 108,000 acre-feet of water between
1962 and 2006 — in the years since, it’s received an average
of 51,000 acre-feet. As a result, the refuge’s wetland
acreage has declined by 47%.
year, upwards of 100,000 birds succumbed to one of the
outbreaks in history on
Lower Klamath and Tule Lake Refuges, exacerbated by soaring
summer temperatures and dangerously shallow water.
deliveries from the Project
kept the outbreak from worsening, but refuge managers
believe taking a preventative approach by receiving reliable
water deliveries at the beginning of the summer are the best
way to help the refuge —and its birds — survive.
exactly what a local water user and the California Waterfowl
Association hope to achieve with a landmark water rights
transfer deal announced earlier
this month. The Wood River Valley rancher, who asked not to
be named until the deal is solidified, proposed selling
4,500 acre-feet of his water right to the refuge. CWA is
helping facilitate the deal with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife
Service and is fundraising to cover the purchase cost.
being diverted from the Wood River, the rancher would let
the water flow into Upper Klamath Lake. Beginning in April
and continuing through the summer, the refuge would then
draw the same amount of water from Klamath River south of
Lake Ewauna through the Ady Canal.
By changing the
point of diversion, CWA hopes to get water to the refuges
without sacrificing water for farmers in the Project.
a matter of letting the water go into Upper Klamath Lake and
taking it out at the other end,” said Jeff Volberg, director
of water policy at CWA. “Under state law, that really isn’t
irrigators in the Upper Basin are subject to water calls
made by the Klamath Tribes in order to allow instream flows
for endangered C’waam and Koptu in Upper Klamath Lake,
Volberg said this rancher’s water rights are senior enough
to the point where they’re rarely impacted. Plus, he said,
allowing the water to pass through the lake might provide a
small, temporary benefit in keeping its elevations up.
In addition to
an approximately 12,000 acre-feet water right transfer from
near Upper Klamath National Wildlife Refuge near Rocky Point
that Fish and Wildlife has been using since 2017, Volberg
said this additional transfer could allow refuge managers to
keep Unit 2, one of Lower Klamath’s permanent wetlands,
filled through the summer. That wetland served as a safe
haven for waterfowl impacted by the botulism outbreak last
summer after an adjacent permanent wetland had to be drained
to stop the spread of the waterborne disease.
“It’s kind of
the bare minimum, but it’s better than nothing,” Volberg
4,500 acre-feet is a first step for what CWA hopes to secure
permanently in the future for the refuge. The rancher has
proposed consolidating ranches to be able to sell a water
right of 30,000 acre-feet, which would represent a 59%
increase in water deliveries to the refuge, according to an
environmental assessment conducted by Fish and Wildlife. Of
course, the costs will be considerable.
smaller water transfer is still being appraised, Volberg
said CWA is in the process of lobbying the federal
government to eventually purchase the full 30,000 acre-feet,
which could cost up to $60 million. That could easily be
funded by Congress.
“It’s been a
longstanding problem for the federal government, and in the
full scope of things it’s not that much money when you
really come down to it,” he said.
beneficial than the actual amount of water the deal secures
would be the consistency it ensures for the refuges in the
future. Having a reliable baseline flow of water to Lower
Klamath was a crucial point for refuge stakeholders in the
failed Klamath Basin Restoration Agreement, and this water
rights transfer provides a roundabout way of achieving that.
“As this ramps
up and we acquire more water, they would have access to
water that they can predict and schedule. The way things
currently are, they receive water when Reclamation is ready
to send it to them,” Volberg said.
emphasized the fact that this deal wouldn’t impact water
availability for irrigators in the Klamath Project, who are
gearing up for one of the lowest allocations in history this
water that would otherwise be unavailable to the project,
and it leaves the project whole,” he said.
everyone else who depends on water in the Klamath Basin,
Fish and Wildlife is preparing for another abysmal summer.
Susan Sawyer, the Service’s public affairs officer for the
Klamath Basin, said the agency is “working in real time with
stakeholders to address this difficult challenge.”
severity of the drought and operational requirements, it is
uncertain at this time how much water will be available in
2021 for the refuges,” she said. “We will continue to seek
opportunities, including potential water rights transfers,
to help the Klamath Basin national wildlife refuges.”
environmental assessment outlined that a 30,000 acre-feet
delivery would allow Lower Klamath to support an additional
3,000 acres of grain, 1,000 acres of pasture, 2,000 acres of
permanent wetlands and 4,600 acres of other wetlands.
Karl Wenner, a
retired surgeon and conservationist in the Basin, said he’s
excited about CWA’s efforts to bring a reliable water supply
to the refuge. Earlier this winter, more than 10,000 swans
gathered on his 400-acre barley farm because they had
nowhere else to go—the refuge’s wetlands were too dry to
“For the refuge
to be dry like this is an unmitigated disaster,” he said. “I
think [CWA] should be applauded for stepping up and
addressing this. It has to be addressed, because the whole
Pacific Flyway population depends on it.”
said it will take a lot of political will to solidify the
transfer on a federal level. Darrel Samuels, president of
the Klamath Basin Audubon Society, said while the chapter
isn’t large enough to fundraise the money themselves, he
hopes to raise awareness about the refuge’s issues and get
legislators to act on them. Even the power of the National
Audubon Society could be harnessed.
“I can’t think
of a better cause that they can get involved in nationally
than this one,” Samuels said.
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