This is the first story in a three-part series on the wildlife refuges of the Klamath Basin and water in the arid West. Read Part two here.
Driving around Lower Klamath National Wildlife Refuge is like being on bird safari. Guides today are refuge manager Greg Austin and biologist John Vradenburg.
“Starting to see the white-faced ibis,” says Austin, manager of the six preserves that make up the Klamath Basin National Wildlife Refuge Complex.
Austin and Vradenburg look out of the dusty car window at ibis wading in the distance.
“Yeah, this is the first time I’ve seen it today,” Vradenburg confirms.
Lower Klamath is a place of paradox. The wide-open landscape is a disconcerting contrast of wildness and impeccable human control. Gravel roads run along a grid of dikes separating wetlands from fields of wheat and barley. Irrigation channels, dams and water pumps crisscross the landscape.
Austin stops at a massive expanse of marshy field.
“That's the first time we've had water on that in years,” he says.
His voice is tinged with sadness.
“Ten years at least,” Vradenburg says, matching Austin’s rueful tone.
The refuge is functionally near the bottom of a long hierarchy of water users in the basin. And over the past few years, the refuge wetlands haven’t been wet at all.
The coots, plovers, willets, godwits, grebes, and gulls don’t know the history of this land. They only know there’s water right now.
But Vradenburg says by the end of July, the water in this field will likely be gone. So the refuge, which was set aside by President Theodore Roosevelt as a haven for waterfowl, is pumping the water away to force the birds to leave.
Related: What Happens To Birds When Wildlife Refuges Dry Up?
“We can't afford to have a whole bunch of areas that are going to attract a large number of birds in to nest, and then pull the bottom out from under them because the water's not there,” Vradenburg explains.
This is the deep irony of Lower Klamath’s place in the basin. The natural systems that once kept the land wet have long been altered and now the refuge depends largely on water deliveries from the Bureau of Reclamation, the federal agency that controls the massive Klamath Basin irrigation project.
And despite having enough snow and rain last winter to end the Western drought, the refuge was given no guarantee of getting any more water this year.
“To know that you had this kind of water year, and the watershed is as wet as it is, and we may be still dealing with the same drought-like conditions that we've dealt with for the recent past history,” Vradenburg says. “I don't know how we manage for that.”
About 20 miles north of the refuge, Jim McCarthy of the environmental group WaterWatch walks along a trail by Upper Klamath Lake. The narrow inlet above the Link River Dam attracts several mid-morning fishermen.
“How’s fishing?” McCarthy asks as he passes.
“No bites yet. Still trying to catch one,” an angler responds. This is the main reservoir for the Klamath Basin.
It’s a large shallow lake featuring high temperatures, massive algae blooms and the occasional trophy redband trout.
McCarthy says the refuge has an early water right that should give it the same access to this water as the oldest farms here. But he says the Bureau of Reclamation isn’t honoring those rights.
“If you have an agency coming in and using their power to deny legal water claims, that's a very bad precedent,” he says. “That should set off alarm bells all across the West.”
At the very least, McCarthy says the bureau should extend the same courtesy to the refuge that it extends to farmers on the project. Each spring, the Bureau of Reclamation gives water delivery estimates to farmers based on winter precipitation levels.
“The bureau makes a big deal — and I think it’s totally appropriate — how they want to provide water certainty to the irrigators so they can plan their crops and plan their year and do what they need to do and make a living,” he says.
The bureau hasn’t given any kind of certainty to the refuges since 2013.
“(That’s) what allows the refuge to exist and fulfill its purposes: if it knows what water it's receiving and the plans that they can make to provide breeding habitat and other kinds of habitat for birds.”
Evidence of the simmering tension over water bubbles up frequently in the Klamath Basin. You can ask about anything, "as long as you don't talk about water or fish or wildlife or wetlands. But everything else you can talk about,” joked one federal employee.
At the Bureau of Reclamation office near Klamath Falls, this sentiment is a bit more subtle – and comes in the form of locked entries, barricades and fences (some of these measures, no-doubt, were post 9-11 security upgrades).
The building is squat and not aging very gracefully. It’s surrounded by modular outbuildings that resemble trailers. Yet this is a seat of power.
“We're the ones that open and close the faucet so we do get characterized as the agency or entity that rules the water in the Klamath,” says Jason Cameron, deputy area manager for the bureau's Klamath Basin office.
But Cameron says the bureau is only following the law.
Lower Klamath does have an early water right that gives them the same legal entitlement to water as the oldest farms on the Klamath Irrigation Project. The problem is physical access.
“If you do not have direct access to the source of water, then the water right holder together with the (land)owners (in) between … need to work closely together. Because the water right does not give the right to trespass over somebody else’s property,” says Tom Paul, special assistant to the director of the Oregon Water Resources Department, the state agency that manages water rights.
Irrigators on the Klamath Project have contracts that give them a priority for water delivery – this aligns closely with when the farmer and the land they use became part of the project.
“In those contract and then the prioritization system, it's pretty clear that we need to meet our contractual obligations prior to making water available to the wildlife refuge,” says Reclamation’s Cameron.
At this point, the refuge doesn’t have a formal agreement with the Bureau of Reclamation to use project infrastructure to receive water. And without a contract-like arrangement, the refuges are out of luck.
Fish Over Birds
Perhaps a more immediate legal hurdle for the refuges getting water, somewhat ironically, is the Endangered Species Act. Three fish in the Klamath Basin — two species of sucker fish and the Klamath River coho salmon — are protected species under the law.
“In years past, prior to Endangered Species Act requirements on the project, there was ample water available for the refuge,” says Reclamation Deputy Director Cameron.
The latest round of requirements came in the form of a 2013 report by two federal agencies assessing the Klamath project's impact on imperiled fish and their habitat. This biological opinion by the Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service serves as an instruction manual of sorts for protecting these fish.
Cameron says because of that document, the bureau doesn’t have any discretion on how much water the refuges can receive.
“In a nutshell, the 2013 biological opinion accounts for all of the water in the system. And clearly articulate how much water can go when and where,” he says.
The opinion cuts off the water completely to the refuges from March through the end of May. And then it says the refuges will only get water in the summer if the fish have enough and the project's farmers get everything they need. And in fact, this latest version of has been even more onerous in terms of water for the refuges.
“The biological opinions previously didn’t specify what you could or couldn’t deliver to the refuges, where in the current biological opinion it does,” Cameron says.
Reclamation won’t know with certainty if there’s going to be water left until later in the season, although Lower Klamath started receiving some water in July.
So who gets the water in the Klamath Basin? First fish, then farms and then, if they’re lucky... the birds.
Ron Cole retired as Klamath Refuge Manager in 2014, a year after Reclamation stopped budgeting water for Lower Klamath.
“As a manager, I had no problem with the refuge giving up water to help endangered fish. But that's been going on for a long time now, and we haven't seen any real change in the fish population,” he says.
What has changed are the refuges. Nesting waterfowl, nesting shorebirds, migratory shorebirds, the number of birds, the number of waterfowl that migrate through the basin, have declined. Cole says there are species that once used the refuges that are now gone.
“They're not endangered so no one's worried about that,” he says.
Cole says a complex history and politics brought us to this moment.
“You want to keep the Endangered Species Act working and helping fish. You want to keep the economy of the basin functioning as best you can. If someone was going to have to give something up, there's just not enough support to keep water on the refuge.”
Making It Flow
As intractable as the refuges' water situation is, there are ideas for getting the water to flow once again for the birds.
Some involved look to the past, and the possibility of an agreement like the Klamath Basin Restoration Agreement. This was a long-negotiated water agreement, full of compromise and promise. It effectively died when Congress failed to pass legislation to fund the deal.
“You look back on the old KBRA and it was groups getting together and compromising… knowing you're not going to get everything you want but working together. I think as a community we'd be a lot better off with that,” says Austin, the current refuge manager.
The KBRA would have given the refuges some water certainty each year, as well as funneling more revenue made off farming on the refuges to pay for wildlife management.
“We believe we need a balanced approach because, without that, we have to legally write the biological opinions,” Austin says
Last year’s new agreement to remove four Klamath River dams called for a restart of KBRA-like negotiations. But as of yet no meetings between the interests in the basin are underway.
Another possible way forward has also recently emerged.
Before the change of administrations in January, Deputy Secretary of the Interior Mike Connor signed a memo saying Lower Klamath National Wildlife Refuge met the requirement to get the highest priority water delivery priority from the Bureau of Reclamation.
In June, the California Waterfowl Association took up this thread, sending a letter to current Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke asking for a more reliable supply of water to the Klamath refuges.
The letter specifically asks for the bureau to negotiate high-priority water delivery contract (it would technically be a memorandum of agreement) for the refuges.
Refuge and Reclamation staff say they had a preliminary meeting in June to discuss a way forward.
The letter also requests that the up-coming revision of the biological opinion should include changes to water delivery restriction on the refuges because “the criteria under the current biological opinion are almost impossible to meet.”
And this has never been more evident than this year: The entire Klamath Basin is lousy with water and Lower Klamath Refuge and the hundreds of species of birds that use it have been left with the liquid equivalent of scraps.
This is the first story in a three-part series on the wildlife refuges of the Klamath Basin and water in the arid West. Coming Tuesday: The abundance of birds may give the impression that the Klamath refuges are giving wildlife what they need. That's actually not the case.
Correction: July 28, 2017. An earlier version of this story misstated the senders of a letter to Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke asking for a more reliable supply of water to the Klamath refuges. The letter was sent by the California Waterfowl Association. The story has been updated to reflect this.