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Wood River rancher sells water right to help downstream refuges

DSC_0250.jpgHerald and News by Alex Schwartz 3/16/21

< A wetland unit at Lower Klamath National Wildlife Refuge. When water doesn’t flow to these units during the summer, their water levels can get low enough for botulism outbreaks to form. This year, late summer water deliveries from the Klamath Project have prevented current outbreaks from worsening.  

A unique deal between ranchers and wildlife advocates may at long last bring a reliable water supply to Lower Klamath National Wildlife Refuge — and the wetlands and birds that depend on it.

Since it was largely drained in the early 20th Century, the mosaic of wetlands formerly known as Lower Klamath Lake has relied on water from the Klamath Irrigation Project to grow food and provide suitable habitat for millions of migrating birds along the Pacific Flyway each year. Wetlands in the Klamath Basin support nearly 80% of the Pacific Flyway’s migratory waterfowl during the spring and fall.
KBC NOTE: Go HERE for the previous 100,000 acres of agricultural land acquisition by the U.S. government: "One ranch at a time, Government agencies and TNC promised that these farm and ranch acquisitions would save water, improve water quality, benefit fish, and store water for the rest of the irrigators and put more water into the Klamath River. The opposite is true..."  KBC NOTE: Our refuges were designed to receive water after it was pumped through the Klamath Reclamation Project. This amount was substantial until the government-mandated instream-required-water-for-fish skyrocketed. Water for fish = less or no water for birds and 489 species of wildlife, and farmers. Thus, when the Klamath Project gets it's full delivery, the runoff water goes to the refuges. This Project water historically was in a closed basin until Reclamation blasted a tunnel through Sheepy Ridge to supply Lower Klamath Refuge and keep farms from flooding. Pacific Power raised Project power rate more than 2000%, and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service refuses to pay the $100's of thousands power costs for D Plant to pump water into Lower Klamath Refuges from the Project.

The refuge traditionally supported breeding, molting and feeding birds year-round, but a lack of water over the past two decades has made it nearly inhospitable for avian visitors during the late summer and early fall.

Because the refuge sits at the bottom of the water rights pecking order within the Project, it’s the last recipient of water diverted from Upper Klamath Lake—if it gets any at all. The reduction in the Klamath Basin’s water availability over the past 20 years has hit particularly hard here: Lower Klamath received an average of 108,000 acre-feet of water between 1962 and 2006 — in the years since, it’s received an average of 51,000 acre-feet. As a result, the refuge’s wetland acreage has declined by 47%.

Last year, upwards of 100,000 birds succumbed to one of the worst botulism outbreaks in history on Lower Klamath and Tule Lake Refuges, exacerbated by soaring summer temperatures and dangerously shallow water. Emergency water deliveries from the Project kept the outbreak from worsening, but refuge managers believe taking a preventative approach by receiving reliable water deliveries at the beginning of the summer are the best way to help the refuge —and its birds — survive.

That’s exactly what a local water user and the California Waterfowl Association hope to achieve with a landmark water rights transfer deal announced earlier this month. The Wood River Valley rancher, who asked not to be named until the deal is solidified, proposed selling 4,500 acre-feet of his water right to the refuge. CWA is helping facilitate the deal with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and is fundraising to cover the purchase cost.

Instead of being diverted from the Wood River, the rancher would let the water flow into Upper Klamath Lake. Beginning in April and continuing through the summer, the refuge would then draw the same amount of water from Klamath River south of Lake Ewauna through the Ady Canal.

By changing the point of diversion, CWA hopes to get water to the refuges without sacrificing water for farmers in the Project.

“It’s basically a matter of letting the water go into Upper Klamath Lake and taking it out at the other end,” said Jeff Volberg, director of water policy at CWA. “Under state law, that really isn’t a problem.”

Though irrigators in the Upper Basin are subject to water calls made by the Klamath Tribes in order to allow instream flows for endangered C’waam and Koptu in Upper Klamath Lake, Volberg said this rancher’s water rights are senior enough to the point where they’re rarely impacted. Plus, he said, allowing the water to pass through the lake might provide a small, temporary benefit in keeping its elevations up.

In addition to an approximately 12,000 acre-feet water right transfer from near Upper Klamath National Wildlife Refuge near Rocky Point that Fish and Wildlife has been using since 2017, Volberg said this additional transfer could allow refuge managers to keep Unit 2, one of Lower Klamath’s permanent wetlands, filled through the summer. That wetland served as a safe haven for waterfowl impacted by the botulism outbreak last summer after an adjacent permanent wetland had to be drained to stop the spread of the waterborne disease.

“It’s kind of the bare minimum, but it’s better than nothing,” Volberg said.

This year’s 4,500 acre-feet is a first step for what CWA hopes to secure permanently in the future for the refuge. The rancher has proposed consolidating ranches to be able to sell a water right of 30,000 acre-feet, which would represent a 59% increase in water deliveries to the refuge, according to an environmental assessment conducted by Fish and Wildlife. Of course, the costs will be considerable.

Though the smaller water transfer is still being appraised, Volberg said CWA is in the process of lobbying the federal government to eventually purchase the full 30,000 acre-feet, which could cost up to $60 million. That could easily be funded by Congress.

“It’s been a longstanding problem for the federal government, and in the full scope of things it’s not that much money when you really come down to it,” he said.

Perhaps more beneficial than the actual amount of water the deal secures would be the consistency it ensures for the refuges in the future. Having a reliable baseline flow of water to Lower Klamath was a crucial point for refuge stakeholders in the failed Klamath Basin Restoration Agreement, and this water rights transfer provides a roundabout way of achieving that.

“As this ramps up and we acquire more water, they would have access to water that they can predict and schedule. The way things currently are, they receive water when Reclamation is ready to send it to them,” Volberg said.

Volberg emphasized the fact that this deal wouldn’t impact water availability for irrigators in the Klamath Project, who are gearing up for one of the lowest allocations in history this year.

“It brings water that would otherwise be unavailable to the project, and it leaves the project whole,” he said.

Along with everyone else who depends on water in the Klamath Basin, Fish and Wildlife is preparing for another abysmal summer. Susan Sawyer, the Service’s public affairs officer for the Klamath Basin, said the agency is “working in real time with stakeholders to address this difficult challenge.”

“Given the severity of the drought and operational requirements, it is uncertain at this time how much water will be available in 2021 for the refuges,” she said. “We will continue to seek opportunities, including potential water rights transfers, to help the Klamath Basin national wildlife refuges.”

The environmental assessment outlined that a 30,000 acre-feet delivery would allow Lower Klamath to support an additional 3,000 acres of grain, 1,000 acres of pasture, 2,000 acres of permanent wetlands and 4,600 acres of other wetlands.

Karl Wenner, a retired surgeon and conservationist in the Basin, said he’s excited about CWA’s efforts to bring a reliable water supply to the refuge. Earlier this winter, more than 10,000 swans gathered on his 400-acre barley farm because they had nowhere else to go—the refuge’s wetlands were too dry to accommodate them.

“For the refuge to be dry like this is an unmitigated disaster,” he said. “I think [CWA] should be applauded for stepping up and addressing this. It has to be addressed, because the whole Pacific Flyway population depends on it.”

Still, Wenner said it will take a lot of political will to solidify the transfer on a federal level. Darrel Samuels, president of the Klamath Basin Audubon Society, said while the chapter isn’t large enough to fundraise the money themselves, he hopes to raise awareness about the refuge’s issues and get legislators to act on them. Even the power of the National Audubon Society could be harnessed.

“I can’t think of a better cause that they can get involved in nationally than this one,” Samuels said.



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