The Lower Klamath National Wildlife Refuge (NWR), located in northeastern California and southern Oregon, is facing extreme drought and wetland loss. Lower Klamath NWR was established in 1908 by President Theodore Roosevelt as the nation’s first waterfowl refuge. The refuge comprises 50,092 acres of marshes, open water, croplands and grassy uplands. Over 80 percent of migratory waterfowl in the Pacific Flyway stop at the refuge during spring and fall migrations. At the peak of migration, populations can reach 1.8 million waterfowl.
A variety of waterfowl and shorebirds use the refuge, most notably numerous species of diving ducks, including canvasbacks and redheads, and dabbling ducks including mallards, pintails, and gadwalls. Sandhill cranes flock to Lower Klamath in the fall, and over 30,000 tundra swans winter at the refuge. The iconic American bald eagle reaches a population of 500 at the refuge during its wintering period. Additionally, the refuge is home to 25 species listed by California and Oregon as threatened or sensitive.
All the refuges’ species are experiencing the effects of heavy drought because more than 80 percent of the wetlands have disappeared. Lower Klamath’s water is delivered through an irrigation system of canals managed by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s Klamath Project, and because the high desert region is in drought, there is no water currently allocated for the refuge. This drought has caused birds to flee to the nearby Tule Lake NWR in northeast California, almost half the size of Lower Klamath NWR.
The water wars at Lower Klamath NWR date back to the 1800s when the federal government signed a treaty with the Klamath, Modoc, and Yahooskin Tribes, guaranteeing them hunting and fishing access in the Upper Klamath Lake. In 1905, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s Klamath Project built canals, dams, ponds, and marshes to create 210,000 acres of farmland and wetlands, but only 20 percent of the original wetlands constructed remain today. Ultimately, the federal government promised water from the Klamath Basin to Native American tribes, farmers, endangered species, and wildlife refuges. The Klamath Basin water is allocated based on priority, starting with endangered species, Native American tribes, farmers, and lastly wildlife refuges. Because Lower Klamath NWR doesn’t have any endangered species, the refuge has not received water since March 2013. In 2008, the Klamath Basin Restoration Agreement was drafted, and would remove four Klamath River dams, providing more water for refuges. However, this project would cost a hefty $500 million, and has stalled in Congress.
Tule Lake NWR still has water, and waterfowl that usually reside at Lower Klamath NWR are overcrowding the 13,000 acres of Tule Lake, with numbers close to 150,000 birds. An outbreak of avian botulism, a disease that causes paralysis in birds when they ingest a toxin produced by the bacterium Clostridium botulinum, has killed over 9,000 ducks, and volunteers continue to pick up hundreds of dead ducks every day. The disease disrupts the nervous system, causing death in as little as 24 hours. It is now widespread at Tule Lake where overcrowding speeds its spread, and there is potential for the disease to spread to other waterfowl populations when infected ducks take flight for fall migration.
In a typical year at Lower Klamath, there are 25,300 acres of wetlands. These are divided into a 16,100 acre area that is managed as seasonal wetlands and a 9,200 acre area that is managed as permanent habitat. This year, there is no water in the permanent wetlands, and the refuge is predicting only 10,000 of the seasonal 16,100 acres will be flooded. By fall migration, only 6,500 acres will be flooded, compared to a drought-free year when all 16,100 acres are normally flooded by peak fall migration. The drought crisis at Lower Klamath NWR will likely continue into next spring, causing even greater problems for waterfowl along the Pacific Flyway.