A Vision for the Klamath Basin

Wetlands in the Upper Klamath BasinOne hundred and fifty years ago early settlers in the Klamath Basin were met by a vast expanse of wetlands, shallow lakes and marshes; they fished a roaring river, rich with salmon winding through hundreds of miles of western countryside; they were amazed by the spectacular migrations of geese, eagles, and other birds.

Home to invaluable wildlife species and a remarkable landscape, the basin drew the attention of conservationists from across the nation, including President Theodore Roosevelt.

In 1908 President Roosevelt designated 81,000 acres of marsh and open water in Lower Klamath Lake as the first National Wildlife Refuge for waterfowl. Twenty years later, Tule Lake joined the refuge system when Franklin Roosevelt authorized the protection of 37,000 acres in what was Tule Lake.

Simultaneously, the Klamath River meandered wild and strong from the high desert of southern Oregon to the north coast of California, teeming with salmon, and host to native and homesteading fishermen as the third largest salmon fishery in the West. 

Yellow headed Blackbird on Lower Klamath National Wildlife RefugeUnfortunately, the visionary and inspired attempts to protect the Klamath's fragile and important wetlands and remarkable river during the early 20th Century have been undermined by a century of mismanagement and abuse.

The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation's massive Klamath Irrigation Project, initiated in 1905, paved the way for extensive agricultural development which destroyed thousands of acres of wetland, interrupted fish runs, and attempted to phase out much of the native culture of the basin. In recent decades, continued agricultural development, excessive water diversions, agricultural pollution, and drought have further damaged and exacerbated the remaining wetland habitat and water quality of the Klamath River.

Over time, 80 percent of the historic wetlands in the Klamath Basin have been drained, largely due to early development during the first half of the 20th Century.

Similarly, peak numbers of migratory birds have also dropped by over 80 percent during approximately the last 60 years. The basin continues to face major environmental challenges both within and beyond the refuges. Dry years and political water battles with basin irrigators have led to low river flows, and four antiquated dams continue to block hundreds of miles of native salmon habitat, limiting fish range and strength, while hosting toxic algae pools in their reservoirs.

Mt. Shasta behind Lower KlamathThe problems in the Klamath are many, and both farmers and conservationists agree even-handed resolutions are rare.

The Klamath Basin is widely recognized as one of the most ecologically important watersheds in the United States.  As such it is also the site of a long simmering conflict over water policy, wetlands, and endangered species.  As the economy shifts and the climate changes, Oregon Wild acknowledges the need for viable, economically feasible solutions to the basin’s fundamental problems. 

A truly balanced plan for restoration of Klamath River salmon runs must start by bringing the demand for water for irrigation back into balance with what nature can safely supply. 

Oregon Wild would like to see the following steps taken to create a more sustainable resource balance in the Klamath Basin:

  • The Klamath needs a voluntary demand reduction program that works with farmers to buy back water rights for irrigation and retire them, so that salmon and wildlife can receive the water they need to survive.  In the past, basin farmers have taken steps upon their own initiative and with federal financial support for water conservation in irrigation.  Continuing to provide farmers with opportunities for reduction is a simple, self-empowering method for resource savings. 
  • Reconsider a ban on pesticides and fertilizers on National Wildlife Refuge lands to improve water quality throughout the basin.  The use of pesticides and other chemicals for the support of crop growth on lease-land commercial agricultural farms is harmful both to refuge wildlife, as well as water quality in the upper basin.  Some of these pesticides are so toxic EPA rules prohibit human entry into the treated fields for 24 to 72 hours after treatment.  Toxic algae blooms throughout the basin can be attributed not only to the warm, stagnant conditions created by the Klamath River dams, but also to the high nutrient load in the upper basin, a direct result of chemical run-off from lease-land and other Klamath Irrigation Project farms.  Legislation for this ban was introduced in the House of Representatives in 2001.
  • Commercial farming uses refuge land that could be used to store water naturally for refuge purposes.  Up to 100,000 acre-feet of water could potentially be stored naturally on refuge land currently leased for commercial agriculture.  In order to use this storage, we must phase out the practice of leasing land on Tule Lake and Lower Klamath National Wildlife Refuges for private commercial agricultural operations, both to reduce the demand for water and restore water-cleansing wetlands.  Creating viable financial incentives to farmers is critical to the success of this proposal.  A federal legislative package with financial support could provide an opportunity for the federal government to buy back its land from local farmers.
More on Oregon Wild's Vision for the Klamath Basin:
A Different Vision: The Klamath Basin Restoration Agreements

Great Horned Owl on Lower Klamath National Wildlife Refuge

Photos top to bottom (all photos by Brett Cole): Wetlands in the Upper Klamath Basin, Yellow headed Blackbird on Lower Klamath National Wildlife Refuge, Mt. Shasta behind Lower Klamath, Great Horned Owl on Lower Klamath National Wildlife Refuge.