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USFWS releases water from the refuge

Herald and News by Holly Dillemuth 3/29/18

Bureau of Reclamation personnel burned away weeds Wednesday morning at the Lower Klamath National Wildlife Refuge along the banks of a gated water way, through which water from the refuge is being discharged to the Klamath River.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, in conjunction with Reclamation’s Klamath Basin Area Office, started releasing water this week from the refuge in what will total roughly 7,000 acre feet over the next three to four weeks.

The release is part of a proposal issued in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California on Monday by Reclamation that asks for a reduced allocation — 65 percent of a normal 390,000 acre feet — of water for Klamath Project irrigators beginning April 19. A hearing on the bureau’s proposed 2018 Klamath Project operations plan is scheduled for April 11 in San Francisco. Reclamation’s proposal also includes implementing a flushing flow of water to the Klamath River, augmented with non-Project water, to mitigate disease concerns impacting endangered coho salmon.

The refuge’s contribution, which is slated to benefit the Project, will be joined by 4,000 acre feet from the Upper Klamath Lake National Wildlife Refuge and 10,500 from PacifiCorp reservoirs.

The refuge is working to recoup the water later this year from Reclamation in time for fall migration. The refuge has also stored excess water to ensure it can contribute the full amount for the flushing flow, according to John Vradenburg, supervisory biologist for the refuge.

“Generally, we don’t release water because we’ll recirculate that water around the refuge,” Vradenburg said. “We haven’t got a lot of water in most years. Last year was the best water deliveries in 10 years, I think.”

The impact of the lower refuge’s contribution isn’t anticipated to affect bird habitat long-term, though, some short-term impacts to nesting of colonial birds such as white-faced ibis sometimes abandon their nests if there’s not enough water.

“Even though it’s not the greatest thing to be happening – none of us are overly excited about it – we can make it work to our advantage to make sure to continue to benefit water birds,” Vradenburg said, referencing the release. “The water would definitely have been used on the refuge, you know, and it wouldn’t have went to waste. We just feel like we can still meet our establishment purpose and benefit the larger community, and benefit the things that are happening downstream and still make it work for us.”

Reduced resources

Vradenburg sees potential for positives in the meantime for birds, many who seem fond of shallow water.

“One of the cool things about waterfowl is they love the shallow water,” Vradenburg said. “So even with the draw down, we’re going to get benefit out of it.

“It’s hard for us to convey to the public how we’re making this work for us as well,” he added. “The needs of all these water bird species, we have to have a diversity of things going on. We need permanent wetlands, we need seasonal wetlands, but we also need mud flats and we need places that are going dry to grow the food.”

Vradenburg also emphasized peak migration for species such as shorebirds isn’t for another six weeks or so, mitigating some impact from the water release.

While some Canada geese may be nesting now, the majority hasn’t occurred yet, which means the release of water likely won’t impact nesting in the short or long term.

“All of these birds are paired for nesting season, but they’re not quite ready for nesting,” Vradenburg said. “They’re still in the process of getting their reserves. Some of them are still migrating. Lower Klamath is a migratory destination for most (bird) species. We’re a migration and staging area in the fall and in the spring.

“When it’s wet, we get a lot of nesting birds,” he added. “When it’s dry, they’ll pass us by.”

During the breeding and nesting period, Vradenburg said the refuge prioritizes wetlands that hold water the longest, to mitigate any impacts on nesting colonies.

“At the continental scale, we believe at this time, our biggest benefit is making sure we have habitat during the migration and staging periods, so that’d be the fall through the winter, through the spring,” Vradenburg said about birds migrating from around the globe. “That’s where from the waterfowl standpoint, we have the biggest continental impact.”

With water expected to be repaid to the refuge this fall, the wildlife habitat is expected to be ready for season changes, and the birds that fly with them.

“The Pacific Flyway’s really challenging because it’s been so highly modified,” Vradenburg said. “We’ve lost much wetland habitat ... so there’s only a few remaining big wetlands.

“Lower Klamath is one of those big, last remaining wetlands and wetland habitats, and so it’s key to that migration and staging. Even historically, that was the role it played.”

Collaborative efforts

Driving a pickup along the ditch banks of the refuge on Wednesday, Vradenburg pointed out numerous waterfowl that call the refuge their home during peak times of the waterfowl season.

The refuge is the nation’s first waterfowl refuge, established in 1908. The roughly 50,000-acre wildlife habitat is a prime spot along the Pacific Flyway for birds of all sorts, including tundra swan, golden eagles, cinnamon teal, gadwall and diving ducks to name more than a few.

“We have six refuges in the complex, Lower Klamath being the most significant for water birds, historically and today,” Vradenburg said.

Vradenburg has worked in wetland management for two decades, for refuges for 14 years, and has been at Lower Klamath for three years. The refuge was a destination for Vradenburg in his career, he said, and continues to be for the birds on the Pacific Flyway, as well as for visitors who also flock to see them.

Vradenburg also added that the refuge works extensively with it’s partners at Reclamation, and project ag producers through collaborative farming, which allows farmers to farm and provides nutrients for birds on the refuge.

“I feel like there’s a huge urgency and desire for collaboration and moving forward,” Vradenburg said. “I’m hopeful that all of this – we’re all working toward a common goal and common desire for collaboration in finding balance. There has to be balance. We can’t continue to go to our corners and fight.”


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