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A blow for fish

Group breaches Klamath levees, turns farmland back into wetlands

Mateusz 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.
View a video showing the demolition.

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 productive farmland.

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 Klamath Lake.

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 said.

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 forgotten.

"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: mperkowski@capitalpress.com

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