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After A Dry Year, Water Flows To Lower Klamath Wildlife Refuge

Holly A. Heyser
California Waterfowl Association
A molting drake mallard on Sheepy Lake in Lower Klamath NWR's Unit 2 on Aug. 6. He is stuck in this disappearing wetland because ducks can't fly while they molt.

In this driest of years in the Klamath Basin, the nation’s oldest wildlife refuge for water birds is now getting this season’s first major infusion of fresh water.

For over a century, the Lower Klamath National Wildfire Refuge has been crucial habitat for birds on their grueling annual migrations between destinations as distant as Alaska and Mexico.

“Getting to those two spots, those two migrations, they need a stopover that they can fuel up on, rest and get back healthy for the rest of their journey,” says John Carlson, president of the California Waterfowl Association.

For years, the refuge has been last in line for scarce water, after farmers and endangered fish. As the drought deepened and wetlands dried out, the lack of water led to massive outbreaks of avian botulism, killing tens of thousands of ducks, geese swans and other migratory water birds. Shrinking water bodies also leave waterfowl more vulnerable to predators such as coyotes, which take advantage of emerging pathways to nests and recuperating flocks.

Bureau of Reclamation

The California Waterfowl Association recently negotiated a short-term arrangement under which a local ranch sold a small water right to the group. The Agency Ranch transferred a water right for 3,750 acre-feet per year for three years. Since the irrigation season ends on Sept. 30, the amount of water actually delivered to the refuge this year will amount to only 700 acre-feet.

Last week, that water started flowing into the refuge.

Even the full agreed-upon amount of water is a minor fraction of the 100,000 acre-feet California Waterfowl estimates the refuge would need to fulfill all its needs.

Still, John Carlson considers successful conclusion of the highly complex legal and logistical negotiations required to seal the deal as "proof of concept." He hopes the three-year agreement will set the stage for other, similar deals that will build toward an adequate — and dependable — water supply for migrating birds in the future.

Liam Moriarty has been covering news in the Pacific Northwest for three decades. He served two stints as JPR News Director and retired full-time from JPR at the end of 2021. Liam now edits and curates the news on JPR's website and digital platforms.