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Klamath Basin farmland used as waterfowl habitat

The region will receive $3.8 million from the NRCS to use working ag land as a stopping point for migrating birds.

Tim Hearden

June 3, 2021

4 Min Read
LKNWR drought 4-2021.jpg
A ridge overlooks the lower Klamath Basin, which farmers and conservationists said was like a scene reminiscent of the 1930s Dust Bowl. Growers are working with conservationists to provide habitat for migrating birds.Ducks Unlimited

In a region fraught with conflict between farmers and environmentalists, some growers in the Klamath Basin are working with a wildlife group to provide habitat for migrating birds – and receiving a small amount of irrigation water in return.

The Tulelake Irrigation District is moving existing water from one drainage pond, or sump, in the Tule Lake National Wildlife Refuge to another to provide a deeper wetland for northern pintail and other waterfowl.

Conservationists wanted a deeper pool of water to protect birds from avian botulism, which naturally occurs on the landscape in the Intermountain West and is worsened by hot temperatures, low water levels, alkaline soils and concentrated numbers of waterfowl, explained Jeff McCreary, Ducks Unlimited’s director of operations for the Western region.

Since there’s currently more water in the refuge than can be stored in one sump, growers will be able to use the rest – a very small amount – for irrigation, McCreary said. Sump 1A is expected to be dry for the first time ever, removing a major waterfowl fall migration stopover, he said.

“This isn’t going to create more water,” McCreary told Farm Press. “That only happens when it rains or snows. What this does is when the water is there, you can use the water to its most beneficial effect, which is helping irrigated agriculture and helping waterfowl.”

‘Collaborative, multi-beneficial projects’

The project is part of a larger effort by Ducks Unlimited to work with farmers and ranchers in the basin straddling the Oregon-California state line to develop “collaborative, multi-beneficial projects” that improve water management for waterfowl-friendly agriculture and wildlife refuges, maximize the use of existing water supplies, and find creative ways to use irrigation return flows on the wildlife refuges, McCreary said.

The region will receive $3.8 million from the Natural Resources Conservation Service to implement conservation efforts that provide temporary habitat for migrating waterfowl on working agricultural land. Of wetlands that attract birds in the region, 74% are on private farmland, and more than 6 million birds rely on these working wet meadows for migration and reproduction each year, according to Ducks Unlimited.

Related: Klamath Basin water allocation cut to zero

The grant funds will provide a financial incentive for landowners and agricultural producers to meet critical habitat requirements, providing short-term relief for birds, conservationists said. The efforts will include flooding farm fields in winter months to improve habitat, McCreary said.

“Supporting conservation actions on private lands helps provide important ecosystem services including clean water, groundwater recharge and habitat for fish and wildlife,” said Dan Keppen, executive director of the Family Farm Alliance. “In turn, local communities benefit from agricultural productivity, making funding from collaborative, voluntary programs … critical to maintaining ecological and socioeconomic function” in the basin, he said.

Drought has renewed tensions

The effort by Ducks Unlimited and a partner, Intermountain West Joint Venture, could provide a needed spirit of collaboration in the basin, where water shortages in recent years have renewed decades-old tensions among growers, Native American tribes, environmentalists and downstream fishing interests vying for limited supplies.

Existing water in the Tule Lake and Lower Klamath refuges will be the only water available this summer, as the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation announced that the Klamath Irrigation Project’s “A” Canal will remain closed for the season. The canal normally carries water to some 200,000 acres of farms in the basin, and irrigation water is the main source of water for the area’s refuges.

McCreary said farmers and ranchers are often portrayed as “the problem” in the basin, but that many have been working toward “multi-benefit” solutions that benefit conservation and agriculture. Last year, after some 60,000 ducks died of avian botulism, the outbreak was alleviated when the Tulelake Irrigation District was able to find some fresh water for the refuges, he said.

Recently Ducks Unlimited employees and volunteers, including Vice President Al Montna and past president Paul Bonderson, met with local farmers to better understand their plight during the drought and consider how agriculture and waterfowl interests could work together.

After the Klamath Water Users Association provided a project history lesson and discussed current water supply challenges, attendees toured the project area, following water from the headworks of Upper Klamath Lake to its end at Tule Lake, according to a release. The group visited the “A” Canal and the two refuges and discussed ideas for solutions for this year and the future.

“Farmers in the district are doing a lot of work – and there’s work happening right now – to reduce impacts of drought on avian botulism,” McCreary said.

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