This article was published on: 12/7/21 9:52 PM
By GEORGE PLAVEN
KLAMATH FALLS — A large-scale wetland restoration project in the Upper Klamath National Wildlife Refuge is raising concern about the possibility of exacerbating future water shortages for farmers and ranchers already grappling with extreme drought.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service wants to rehabilitate more than 14,000 acres of historical wetlands on the north end of Upper Klamath and Agency lakes in south-central Oregon, providing greater habitat for migratory birds and fish.
Upper Klamath National Wildlife Refuge is part of the greater Klamath Basin National Wildlife Refuge Complex. It is a key stop for migrating birds along the Pacific Flyway, which extends from Alaska to Patagonia in South America.
Greg Austin, the refuge manager, said the proposed wetlands restoration would not only augment nesting habitat for geese, ducks and pelicans, but also increase the annual water storage capacity in Upper Klamath Lake by 73,000 acre-feet.
“We’re pretty excited about this,” Austin said. “The community has been looking for new water storage for years.”
Klamath Project irrigators, however, argue that increased storage may not necessarily mean more water is available for agriculture. In fact, it could mean the opposite.
Expanding the overall surface area of Upper Klamath Lake would mean it actually takes more water to meet minimum levels for endangered suckerfish, said Paul Simmons, executive director of the Klamath Water Users Association.
Increasing the size of the lake also means there could be more water lost to evaporation and transpiration from plants, resulting in a net loss to water users downstream, Simmons said.
Water in Upper Klamath Lake is managed for multiple benefits, including sucker fish endemic to the lake; the Klamath Project; Klamath River salmon runs; and five other Klamath Basin wildlife refuge sites that make up the federal complex stretching into Northern California.
“Doing these things in isolation, without regard for how they affect other users, is just not going to get anybody anywhere in the environment we’re in,” Simmons said.
The Fish and Wildlife Service outlined its proposal in a draft environmental assessment released in September. A 45-day public comment period expired Nov. 13.
Under the agency’s “preferred alternative,” the USFWS would breach three levees surrounding the Barnes and Agency Lake units of the Upper Klamath National Wildlife Refuge, about 30 miles north of Klamath Falls.
The units were historically fringe wetlands until levees were built between the 1940s and 1990s, disconnecting them from Upper Klamath Lake for cattle grazing and haying. They were acquired by the USFWS between 2006 and 2010 and incorporated into the wildlife refuge.
In addition to breaching levees, the project calls for restoring the historical route and floodplain for Sevenmile Creek, which was previously altered and channelized for farming.
Finally, the USFWS received an anonymous donation of 2,037 acres within the project area in December 2020, known as the Eisenberg Unit. That land will be managed as “nutrient mitigation wetlands,” soaking up nitrogen and phosphorous from upstream farms and ranches before it enters Upper Klamath Lake.
“It’s going to help with both water quantity and water quality,” Austin said. “The lake needs this kind of restoration.”
The Klamath Water Users Association, which represents 1,200 family farms and ranches, submitted comments opposing the project, along with the Klamath Irrigation District and Klamath Drainage District. They contend the feds did not properly weigh impacts on downstream users in the environmental assessment.
Gene Souza, Klamath Irrigation District manager and executive director, said the additional lands placed under shallow water will likely improve some aquatic and waterfowl habitat, though greater evaporation and transpiration will take more water away from district patrons and potentially alter the timing of irrigation season.
“Crops are best irrigated in the spring for the best yield and reduced water consumption,” Souza wrote in his comments to the USFWS. “Water delivered too late to crops unnecessarily increases water use and water demand.”
The Klamath Project received zero water allocation from Upper Klamath Lake this year amid a punishing drought, leading to wind erosion in dry fields, irrigation canals filled with noxious weeds and a domestic wells running dry due to a lack of groundwater recharge in shallow aquifers.
Simmons said water users reached out to MBK Engineers in Sacramento, California, to gauge the Agency-Barnes restoration project’s impact on downstream water supply using the Bureau of Reclamation’s Klamath Project interim operating plan.
According to the preliminary data, the project would reduce average water deliveries from Upper Klamath Lake for agriculture by 3,000 acre-feet per year.
Deliveries for the other Klamath Basin wildlife refuges would drop by 1,000 acre-feet annually, and in-stream flows for the Klamath River would drop by an average of 34,000 acre-feet.
“To the extent that there is less water available for the river … we would be concerned the Project would end up sucking up the whole burden,” Simmons said.
Austin disputed those figures, saying the USFWS analysis shows the project would yield more usable stored water than what is lost in all conditions.
“We’re going to see an increase in usable storage,” he said.
What remains to be seen is how exactly the water would be used. The Bureau of Reclamation, Fish and Wildlife Service and National Marine Fisheries Service are currently renegotiating water management plans for the Klamath Project to protect both Lost River and shortnose suckers in Upper Klamath Lake, as well as coho salmon in the Klamath River.
Any construction will likely not break ground for another 4-5 years, Austin said. Until then, he said the agency is committed to working through the users’ concerns.
“We want to do the right thing,” he said. “It’s going to take some time.”