blow for fish
Group breaches Klamath levees, turns farmland back into wetlands
Perkowski, November 2, 2007 Capital Press
Strategically placed explosives breach levees
surrounding a 2,500-acre portion of the Williamson River
Delta Preserve north of Upper Klamath Lake on Oct. 30. The
22-mile levee system was built in the 1950s and was
ruptured to restore endangered sucker fish habitat.
A decade's worth
of work was reversed within minutes as a series of explosions on
Oct. 30 ruptured earthen levees that half a century ago
transformed 2,500 acres of marsh north of Upper Klamath Lake into
To help restore the populations of two endangered sucker fish
species, more than 100 tons of ammonium nitrate and fuel oil were
strategically detonated along four sections of the levee system,
the culmination of a two-year, $6 million project coordinated by
The Nature Conservancy, which owns the entire 7,400 acre
Williamson River Delta Preserve.
Reclaiming the wetlands serves a broader purpose as well, said
Mark Stern, The Nature Conservancy's Klamath-area conservation
director. The Lost River and shortnose suckers, he explained, are
similar to "canaries in a mineshaft" that track the overall
environmental health of the region.
"It's really working toward improving the ecosystem and all the
species in it," Stern said.
Klamath Project irrigators may also benefit from sacrificing
farmland to the Williamson River Delta Preserve and other
restoration projects, said John Crawford, a Tulelake farmer and a
trustee of The Nature Conservancy in Oregon.
"Do we like all those thousands of acres going out of agriculture?
Absolutely not," he said. "But we hope it provides some certainty
for those acres that remain in agriculture, and more flexibility
as it pertains to the Endangered Species Act."
The levee breaching tears down work that was done in the 1950s,
when the Henzel family used a floating dredge to scoop peat soil
from the bottom of the lake and pile it into 22 miles of levees.
To complete the project, the dredge ran night and day for years,
operated by a crew of five men who lived on the vessel.
Though the peat soil became suitable for cultivating grains, seed
potatoes, alfalfa and other crops, the delta which the Williamson
River once seeped through disappeared - as did the nursing habitat
for two species of sucker fish that would be listed as endangered
later in the 20th century.
Instead of being allowed to mature in the delta waters, feeding on
algae and zooplankton growing in the pools, the young fish were
thrust straight from the river into the much less survivable Upper
Now the property is owned by The Nature Conservancy. Because the
land is privately owned, as opposed to managed by a federal agency
like the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, it can be used for
multiple purposes instead of being completely locked off, Crawford
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and other agencies helped plan
and fund the project, but The Nature Conservancy controls how it's
managed and will likely continue to make acreage available to
agriculture, he explained.
As for the impact the restored delta will have on irrigation water
availability, the outlook is tentatively positive. Breaching the
levees will provide about 17,000 new acre feet of storage capacity
to the lake, Stern said.
On the other hand, more water will be needed to fill the lake, so
the extra storage capacity won't do much good without strong snow
packs and stream flow.
Filling the lake to meet the minimum requirement established by
the 2002 U.S. Fish and Wildlife biological opinion would also be
more difficult, but the agency is reevaluating its water level
requirements for 2008 to take the project into account, explained
Curt Mullis, field supervisor for the Fish and Wildlife Service's
Klamath Falls office.
Though a drought year would cause problems, the U.S. Fish and
Wildlife sees the delta project as a step forward for both fish
and farmers, Mullis said.
"We're cautiously optimistic that more water storage will give us
more flexibility with lake level management," he said.
The Williamson delta and other conservation projects have given
Klamath Basin farmers more leverage in forging agreements with the
federal agencies that administer the Endangered Species Act and
determine water policy in the region, Crawford said.
He just hopes farmers' goodwill and compromises won't be
"We don't want it all. We never wanted it all. We want to share to
make things better," Crawford said.
Agricultural support for the Williamson River Delta Preserve and
other projects isn't unanimous, however.
After watching the blasts spew dirt hundreds of feet into the air,
Candace Owens was noticeably less impressed than most of the other
observers at the event.
"I think this is a travesty," said Owens, who raises cattle with
her husband, John, in Fort Klamath. "Taking it out of production
is, to me, very sad."
Owens' two sons, Bryan and Nathan, also cattle ranchers, said that
breaching the levees and re-flooding the delta reflected a
disturbing trend within the Klamath Basin. Agricultural land is
succumbing to development at one end and being taken out of
production for conservation projects at the other.
"They just keep pushing forward," Nathan Owens said.
While he isn't opposed to preserving the environment in the
Klamath Basin, Nathan Owens worries that such projects won't
actually boost endangered species populations. Then, recognition
for agricultural sacrifices and the associated political leverage
will likely disappear, he said.
Farming can coincide with conservation - as evidenced by the
migrating birds that depend on crops for sustenance - so
preservation efforts are most useful when they don't leave
agriculture out of the mix, the Owens said.
"Farmland is shrinking everyday from development," Nathan Owens
said. "I'm all for not developing this, but turning it back into a
swamp is not going to help."
As the farmland in the Williamson River Delta is submerged by
water, a piece of the Klamath Basin's agricultural history goes
with it, said Bryan Owens.
"Four explosions and they took it all away," he said.
Staff writer Mateusz Perkowski is based in Salem, Ore. E-mail: