On a cool day in late April, a small crowd gathers around a truck-mounted water tank at Lakeside Farms, on the southeastern shore of Upper Klamath Lake. Swallows dip and dive. Traffic hums along Highway 97. All eyes are focused on the tank’s outlet, where U.S. Fish and Wildlife Science fish biologist Jane Spangler stands poised with a net. Her colleague, science coordinator Christie Nichols, opens the valve. Water gushes out; within seconds, a stream of tiny fish pours into the net.
“Here they come!” says Karl Wenner, an owner at Lakeside Farms.
Nichols and Spangler are here to stock the pond with over 1,000 young C’waam and Koptu — Lost River and shortnose suckers, two endangered species that inhabit Upper Klamath Lake and that are at the heart of the area’s water conflicts. It’s the first time that hatchery-raised suckers have been released on private land.
“You should do the honors,” says Spangler, handing the net to Wenner. He carries the net to the edge of the pond. The moment he dips the net into the water, the fish disappear into the murk.
The pond is part of an innovative restoration project at Lakeside Farms, which is just north of Klamath Falls, Oregon. The project has several components. Near the sucker-rearing pond, a newly-created wetland captures nutrients from agricultural runoff and provides habitat for migrating birds. A new pump system gives farmers more flexibility in how they manage their fields. Altogether, it’s a hopeful demonstration of cooperation in a region that has seen bitter fights between tribes, farmers, and wildlife advocates over who gets water.
Spangler and Nichols continue hauling netfuls of suckers to the pond until the tank is empty. The fish are on their own now, but the hope is they will thrive in the spring-fed wetland.
The Upper Klamath Basin, which encompasses 5.6 million acres in Southern Oregon and Northern California, was once called the “Everglades of the West.” It was a dynamic wetland ecosystem, with vast shallow lakes that ebbed and flowed with the seasons. But, in the last century, at least 80 percent of its wetlands have been lost to livestock grazing and agriculture. More than anything, it is the loss of these wetlands that has compromised the health and resiliency of the entire system. Endangered suckers, migratory birds, and farmers are all suffering the consequences of choices made 100 years ago, and their fates are intertwined.
Lakeside Farms, which has been under cultivation since at least 1939, is part of this complex puzzle. The property is located on the east shore of Upper Klamath Lake, where a fringe of wetlands once hosted throngs of waterfowl and absorbed phosphorus, nitrogen, and sediment before they could enter the lake. With most of these wetlands gone, algae thrive on the steady influx of nutrients; large algae blooms infest the lake every summer, starving it of oxygen. The poor water quality is one of the key factors pushing C’waam and Koptu, important traditional food sources for the Klamath Tribes, to the brink of extinction. At the same time, prolonged drought is drying the entire basin, depriving ducks, geese, swans, and a host of other waterfowl of critical pit stops on their fall and spring migrations between Mexico and Alaska.
At Lakeside Farms, farmers lease land to grow barley and potatoes. In winter, fields are flood irrigated; in spring, the water is directed back into the lake and the fields are planted out. Barley draws residual moisture from the soil and doesn’t require additional watering; ducks also love the leftover grain. But, the practice creates a problem. When phosphorus-rich water from the flooded fields is pumped into Upper Klamath Lake, it helps feed toxic algae blooms.
Farmers across the upper Klamath Basin have been tasked with reducing the burden of nutrients flowing into the lake. One way to accomplish this is to stop flooding fields in winter.
“But when you start losing those [flood-irrigated] farms, that’s waterbird and shorebird habitat that’s disappearing on the landscape,” says Dustin Taylor, private lands biologist for the Klamath Basin National Wildlife Refuge Complex. “Those are deficits that you have to make up elsewhere.”
Could there be a way to preserve flood irrigation, which provides valuable food and habitat for migrating birds, while protecting water quality for endangered suckers? The Klamath Watershed Partnership and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service are working with landowners like Wenner to help solve this knotty problem.
“From the beginning, I envisioned projects that accomplish multiple goals,” says Leigh Ann Vradenburg, project manager with the Klamath Watershed Partnership. “People started throwing out pie in the sky ideas. I said, that’s the kind of project I want to do.”
At Lakeside Farms, the solution started with heavy equipment. First, operators flattened the highly uneven barley fields so that a smaller volume of water can be used to flood the fields in winter. Next, they sculpted the treatment wetland, creating a river-like channel and artificial islands where birds can roost.
Now, water from the flooded fields is funneled into the treatment wetland rather than into the lake. As the water meanders through the wetland, plants trap sediment and absorb nutrients like phosphorus and nitrogen.
Thanks to a natural spring on the property, the team was able to tack on another benefit: deepening areas in an existing wetland pond so they can support young suckers.
The endangered fish are running into a bottleneck. Every year, adults spawn in the Basin’s lakes. But almost no juveniles survive to maturity. Consequently, the populations are aging, with few younger fish to replace them. The shortnose sucker population has crashed in the last five years, from over 20,000 to an estimated 3,400 individuals in Upper Klamath Lake.
Both the Klamath Tribes and Fish and Wildlife Service have started raising wild-born suckers in hatcheries, shielding them from the harsh conditions in Upper Klamath Lake until they mature.
Throughout this spring, Lakeside Farms will receive approximately 5,000 juvenile suckers from the Fish and Wildlife Service’s hatchery program. The young fish were captured as larvae from the nearby Williamson River approximately one year ago. They will spend a few years in the sucker rearing pond, hopefully boosting their chances of survival once they are released into Upper Klamath Lake. In the future, says Vradenburg, they may construct a channel connecting the rearing pond and a smaller spring-fed pond. The flowing water could possibly encourage adult suckers to spawn there.
Meanwhile, the new wetland, which is separated from the rearing pond by a diked road, is already hosting birds. When water flowed into the new wetland for the first time last October “gazillions” of ducks descended almost immediately, Wenner says. He’s seen several waves of birds during the spring migration, too.
“Spring is really important for waterfowl here,” says Wenner. “They’ve depleted all the food in the Central Valley, and they have to go all the way to the Arctic or wherever they’re going to breed.”
An altered landscape
The Klamath Basin is the lynchpin of the Pacific Flyway, the avian superhighway along western North America. An astounding 80% of all birds on the Pacific Flyway stop here. Starting in the early 1900s, as the federal government began “reclaiming” wetlands for agriculture as part of the Klamath Project, bird habitat shrank. In more recent times, the highest official recorded count for the Klamath Basin was 5.8 million birds, in September of 1958. Over the decades, numbers have plummeted. During dry years such as this one, many birds are skipping the Klamath Basin altogether. According to Taylor, the number of birds at the refuges during the peak of fall migration last year represented just one percent of historic populations.
The Klamath Basin is fundamentally a wetland landscape, says John Vradenburg, supervisory biologist for the Klamath Basin National Wildlife Refuge Complex, and husband of Leigh Ann Vradenburg, with the Klamath Watershed Partnership. Understanding the historic landscape, he adds, is key to restoring functionality to this greatly altered ecosystem.
According to John Vradenburg, several trends are converging to compromise what he calls the “hydrologic resiliency” of the Klamath Basin system: changes in how water is allocated, persistent drought made worse by climate change, and a trend away from flood irrigation.
Nowhere are these trends more evident than at Tule Lake and Lower Klamath National Wildlife Refuges in California, near the Oregon border. Croplands surround the refuges; farmers also cultivate crops within the refuges through land-sharing programs. Because of how water is divvied up, the refuges depend on second-hand water delivered to farmers in the Klamath Project, which is managed by the Bureau of Reclamation. When irrigation water is cut off to farmers, as it was in 2021 and again this year, the refuges suffer, too. One of the two large reservoirs at Tule Lake refuge is a vast expanse of cracked soil for the second year in a row; the other one is rapidly drying.
“When I look across the basin, I see a system that should be wet,” says Vradenburg. “Instead, it’s desertifying.”
As many of the basin’s historic wetlands have been lost to agriculture, flood-irrigated crop fields have become important sources of food and habitat for waterfowl today. The practice also naturally controls weeds and pests, allowing farmers to cut down on pesticide and herbicide use.
Despite these benefits, some farmers have embraced more efficient irrigation methods to make every drop of water count. Ironically, these practices mean less water flows back to the refuges—and less wetland habitat for birds.
Vradenburg would like to see a strategic approach that incentivizes farmers to practice flood irrigation.
“We need to get as much of these organic soils wet again and let them be most effective doing what they do best,” he says.
A model project
Dustin Taylor, Leigh Ann Vradenburg, and Karl Wenner worked together to find the best design for the Lakeside Farms project, using a number of criteria to rank different alternatives. In addition to addressing water quality and creating waterfowl habitat, the design had to be economically viable without burdening landowners with additional management tasks.
Now, Taylor and Vradenburg are discussing potential projects with other landowners.
“That’s why we’ve been trying to share this story, to engage other landowners and explain to them how this type of project can be sustainable for them,” says Vradenburg. But, she adds, you need open-minded landowners, and they need incentives to do this work.
Creating the wetland on Lakeside Farms took 70 of the farm’s 400 acres out of production. Wenner and his partners are being compensated through a program administered by the Natural Resources Conservation Service — revenue that definitely helped sweeten the deal.
U.S. Senator Jeff Merkley championed the Lakeside Farms project and helped secure funding. A $37,296 technical assistance grant from the Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board paid for initial designs, surveys, meetings, and planning. The Fish and Wildlife Service provided nearly $650,000 to implement the project.
Wenner and his partners will provide thousands of dollars in cash and in-kind contributions over a five-year period to maintain it. Even so, Wenner believes Lakeside Farms will come out ahead.
“We’re not doing this out of the goodness of our hearts,” he explains. “We’re just like every other outfit out here; we have to make it pay.” Had they not gone forward with this restoration project, they would have had to stop flood irrigating the fields and purchase expensive irrigation equipment instead.
Although such projects don’t come cheap, the time is ripe for restoration. As part of President Biden’s infrastructure bill, Congress has appropriated $162 million for restoration projects in the Klamath Basin. Initially, the USFWS will award $15 million for projects that “help improve river, riparian, lake and wetland habitats.”
While the project partners believe Lakeside Farms will be a successful model to emulate, they haven’t done enough testing to know if the wetland will treat water so it’s clean enough to be pumped back into the lake without degrading water quality. To that end, Leigh Ann Vradenburg has secured funding to monitor water quality at Lakeside Farms and other private properties in the basin.
They are managing the water level in the wetland to simulate natural fluctuations and stimulate plant growth. Next year, the wetland will look very different, says Taylor, adding that the farmland should transition into a wetland very quickly.
“It was so exiting to turn on the water and watch it move through channel that Dustin designed,” says Wenner, recalling when the wetland was first inundated with water last fall. “It’s good for agriculture, good for birds, good for water quality, and good for fish.”