A widely agreed-upon, short-term remedy for Klamath Basin watershed problems is a plan to redevelop wetlands. It's endorsed by conservationists and farmers and ranchers. Wetlands filter drainage water coming off farm- and ranch lands upstream, provide habitat for waterfowl, spawning grounds for endangered fish, and late-season upstream storage for irrigators. Win, win, win. But the working out is never so simple.
Summer Thunderstorm, Wood River, Oregon.
North of Klamath Lake, there's a reach of grazing meadows—cut by sod-banked fishing rivers, the Sprague, the Williamson, and the Wood, and centered on the tiny country town of Fort Klamath—that constitute one of the most appealing landscapes in the American West. Fertile, framed by aspen groves, it looks to have once been a paradise of hunting animals like mule deer and elk. If the truly rich with their enormous invulnerabilities and funds ever decide to buy into the Klamath country, the way they have bought up parts of Montana, where I live, they'll probably start around the Fort. In the meantime, as it has been for decades, Fort Klamath is grazing country. About 40,000 acres support 40,000 cows and calves for the summer, some 240,000 animal-unit months
The Williamson River, the Sprague, and the Wood carry an enormous load of livestock waste into Klamath Lake. Polluting prime trout habitat on the way, they feed nutrients to processes in the lake that result in a huge annual bloom of blue-green algae, which then dies and settles. Bacteria decompose the algae and, as they do, deplete oxygen levels in the lake, which becomes both acidic and hypoxic, unlivable for fish (these same processes, because of nitrogen and various other nutrients from the Mississippi River system, have led to the formation of a seven-thousand-square-mile "dead zone" in the seawaters of the Gulf of Mexico off Louisiana). The summer drawdown from the lake, which provides water for irrigators, heightens the problem. Reaches of the lake in late summer in dry years are reduced to mudflats. The shores are littered with decaying fish. Those that survive are mainly the ones that migrate up into the streams. Water from the basin, thick with sediment, flows into the Klamath River. Oxygen levels in the Klamath River in 1986, between Lake Ewauna and Keno, fell to near zero, killing thousands of fish. Responding to sportfishers and the commercial fishing industry and the various tribes, Congress created the Klamath Basin Fisheries
"Like winds and sunsets, wild things were taken for granted until progress began to do away with them. Now we face the question of whether a still higher 'standard of living' is worth its cost in things natural, wild, and free."
Restoration Task Force and gave them the task of developing a salmon recovery plan. Farmers in the basin, fearful of losing irrigation water, didn't cooperate. After years of interest-group infighting, the process seems stalled. That same year, 1986, the Klamath tribes asked the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to protect two species of fish they regard as culturally valuable, the qapdo
) and c'wam
). These fish, also known as shortnose and Lost River suckers, exist only in the Klamath Basin. In 1988 the agency listed both species as endangered. Reclamation was forced to ensure water in habitat where the suckers spawned. Which meant less water for irrigators. Many were furious. But the trouble was just beginning. By 1991 Reclamation had not yet begun work on a plan to ensure the recovery of the suckers. A lawsuit by the ONRC asked that Reclamation be required to consult with federal biologists on matters having to do with the welfare of the suckers. It was, environmentalists say, a way of "requiring them to do their job."
The Klamath Basin Water Users, an alliance of irrigation districts, farm supply companies, and Klamath Basin business leaders, responded by hiring scientists and lawyers. Serious water wars in the Klamath Basin were under way.
All these problems were exacerbated in 1992 by one of the severe drouths connected to so-called El Niño events in the Pacific. Extreme habitat problems in the Klamath River system caused the Pacific Fisheries Management Council to cut the number of salmon that could be harvested in the ocean. The Department of Interior, under pressure from down-stream interests, ordered Reclamation to release more water for the salmon into the Klamath River. The Bureau of Reclamation, for the first time since the formation of the district, had to restrict and in some cases cut off water to irrigators in the lower end of the basin, affecting around 70,000 acres of cropland. The Bureau, in order to avoid having to cut irrigators even more, drained Clear Lake Reservoir to the lowest levels ever, a move considered harmful to a native population of pelicans. Efforts that winter by the Bureau to review the allocation process didn't get far. "There was a heavy snowpack in 1993," the head of the Bureau said, "and the farmers were in denial."
Nineteen ninety-four was another drouth year. The Bureau cut water to irrigators a second time, ultimately to all irrigators for periods ranging from two to six weeks. As the head of the Bureau said, "Some were just enraged."
The fury of farmers on lands served by the enormous run of irrigation projects developed by the Bureau of Reclamation was understandable. They had been promised all the water they could use. No one imagined the supply would ever run short.
Dr. Karl Wenner and Alice Kilham, Hank's Marsh, Upper Klamath Lake, Oregon, 1998. These two were the original cochairs of the Hatfield Klamath Basin Working Group.
In the meantime, back at Fort Klamath, up toward the head of the watershed, under pressure from environmental groups like Oregon Trout, ranchers voluntarily built fish ladders around irrigation dams and fenced off streamsides. While those efforts were admirable, they were not going to cure the core problem, animal waste in the watershed.
In response to this thicket of interrelated troubles, the Oregon senator Mark Hatfield (since retired) held a hearing in Klamath Falls on July 6, 1994. Hatfield felt that the testimony of local citizens at that hearing offered ample evidence of the desire and willingness of the community to resolve economic and environmental issues at the basin level. He appointed twenty-seven people, representing public and private interests, to a consortium called the Hatfield Klamath Basin Working Group.
Hatfield asked them to develop projects focused on ecosystem restoration, economic stability, and the reduction of drouth impacts, and promised his support and help in implementing those projects. The Working Group first met on April 6, 1995, and on May 17 it sent a short list of projects to Hatfield for inclusion in the Fiscal Year 1996 Federal Budget. Senator Hatfield obtained $3,500,000 for the purchase of 4,700 acres of former Tulana Farms land at the mouth of the Williamson River and $725,000 for use by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in riparian restoration. Working Group proposals for fiscal year 1997 resulted in $5,500,000 for wetlands restoration on the Tulana Farms land, and $500,000 for restoration of wetlands on property purchased in 1994 by the Bureau of Land Management at the mouth of the Wood River.
Bald eagle, Williamson River delta, Oregon.
Jim Carpenter took some hours away from his Cell Tech duties and drove Tupper and Madeleine and me to sad old polluted Lake Ewauna on the edge of downtown Klamath Falls. Sunken timbers left over from its log-pond days are reputed to lie one on top of the other to a depth of fifty feet, decaying into the nutrient overload that feeds into the Klamath River. Timber-milling buildings along the edge of the lake, the old Modoc Lumber Company, have been torn down, the equipment allegedly shipped to Siberia, leaving 400 acres for development. Carpenter hopes some of that development, along with cobblestone streets and upscale shops, will be wetlands.
The idea, Carpenter said, is to ring the lake with marshes that will also function as down-town city parks. Living in a city with downtown parks helps citizens feel positive about the possibility of a good life where they live. Which in turn drives economic activity. Wetlands are good for nature, and economically sensible, feasible, and good for community. No negatives.
Northern pintail, female preening, Williamson River delta, Oregon.
The next day Carpenter drove us to the north end of Klamath Lake, to the delta of the Williamson River, for a look at the 4,700 acres formerly drained and farmed by Tulana Farms. In July 1996, with the intention of returning the entire acreage to wetlands, the Nature Conservancy had bought the property. But farmers protested that there was no other "clean" ground in the Klamath Basin for the production of seed potatoes, so Nature Conservancy administrators agreed to continued farming on 1,150 acres. They plan to return 3,650 acres to permanent wetlands. The plan was endorsed by the Klamath tribes, and restoration work was funded at the request of the Hatfield Klamath Basin Working Group. But others saw the final deal as an instance of rolling over when confronted with the economic power of regional agribusiness. The decision-making, it was said, had been undemocratic, involving secret meetings. To give decision makers credit, it's often impossible to do business with private owners if details of the negotiations are going to make the newspapers. And the wetlands, in any event, are a very good idea.
In 1994 the Bureau of Land Management acquired the Wood River Ranch on Agency Lake, a northern arm of Klamath Lake, planning to reestablish wetlands at the mouth of Wood River and restore the river to its traditional channel in old stream meanders. Wedge Watkins, a longtime Bureau of Land Management employee supervising the restoration, had heavy equipment at work rebuilding dikes. "When they drained this place," he says, "the surface subsided. We're three or four feet below the lake surface. So we're stuck with these dikes for a long time." A big pumping plant, to move water in and out, was already in place. Artifice covering artifice, imitating the natural.
Greater yellowlegs, Williamson River delta, Oregon.
Wedge Watkins gazed off toward the beauties of the Wood River Valley, aspen groves and winding watercourses, and meadows thick with grazing cattle. "With so much livestock upstream," he said, "we have to absorb about the equivalent of 250,000 people dumping their sewage into this watershed." The marsh will work as a water filter, a spawning ground, and as upstream storage for late-season irrigation in the lower basin. A lot of problems addressed with one redeveloped marshland. But, again, people had complaints about the way the property was acquired, in a land trade—the Wood River marshes for 520 acres of old-growth forest. The federal government, it was said, should have simply bought the properties. For sure, if the old growth is cut, it will be a sad loss in territory where there was once so much so-called virgin timber.
During the winter of 1997-98, for an estimated cost of \$5 million, the 7, 123-acre Agency Lake Ranch, on the shore of Agency Lake, was bought by the Trust for Public Lands and its control given over to the Bureau of Reclamation (it will be purchased by the federal government). The land is to be flooded, enabling the Bureau to store around 15,000 acre-feet of water behind existing dikes, and 40,000 acre-feet after the dike system is built up.
Redhead, female and brood, Wood River, Oregon.
It's hoped that these wetlands will provide water to cover shortages in the basin in all but the driest years (there are people who claim that this, given evaporation rates of around 4 acre-feet per year, is nonsense). Summer nutrient loading in Klamath Lake will in any event be reduced by removal of some eight thousand grazing livestock. And as water is released it will be filtered through marshlands. Some of the toxic microcystin algae will be filtered out.
Long-billed dowitchers, Wood River, Oregon.
American avocet, Wood River, Oregon.
These projects are presently thought of as major successes. They have brought a wide range of diverse economic and environmental interests into previously unheard-of working partnerships, and waterbirds will throng to the remade marshes.
Louis Randall, former head of the Oregon Cattlemen's Association, alongside his restored marsh, Langell Valley, Oregon, 1998. In 1992, Randall received the National Wetlands Conservation Award, presented by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, for having one of the best restored wetlands west of the Mississippi.
Jim Hainline took Madeleine and Tupper and me out to have lunch with Louis Randall and his wife, Maren, at their Langell Valley home in the Lost River drainage, near the place where wetlands reclamation in the Klamath Basin got under way in 1868, as the Langell family settled in. (It's also the setting for a Zane Grey novel called The Forlorn River
Randall created 800 acres of private wetlands under a conservation easement, and he proposes 300 more, work carried out for the common good, with the help of federal experts for sure, but for their own and the common good. When I asked how far he'd go with recreating marshlands, Randall said, "Just as soon put the whole thing in." In the days before the Lost River channel was dredged, it was all wetlands. "We cut hay on the high ground," Randall said. "Then we broke it up. Plowed the whole summer of 1945. Put in oats in 1946. For forty years we farmed it, but it was marginal grain land." Randall says he got the idea of creating marshes from duck hunters who came back year after year for the fall shooting in his fields. Now, he said, he's making more off the hunting leases than he ever did with grain. And it's easy. "Keep it wet," he said, "and let the tules grow."
Louis Randall is in his seventies and very well regarded in Oregon, a prosperous man (his wife, Maren, served us lunch beside their enclosed swimming pool) and a former head of the Oregon Cattleman's Association. If anybody had a chance to be locked into traditional ranching, Louis Randall is the man. But, he said, "we can't go back. We have to go forward." With the marshlands, he's making money, and he's proud of himself for working to leave things as alive as he found them when he was young.
Greater white-fronted geese, Lost River wetlands, Langell Valley, Oregon.
A few days later, Jim Hainline took Madeleine and Tupper and me to visit with a rancher named Dan Byrne, who comes from a longtime ranching family. Byrne runs cows on private and federally owned highland country, a lot of it rocky juniper flats east of the Clear Lake National Wildlife Refuge.
Cowmen using public lands, like those managed by the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management in Klamath County, face image problems that seem to be getting worse. Grazing fees, set in Washington, D.C., with western Congressmembers looking on, are often well below market rates. Ranchers, as seen by the public, are getting huge subsidies. Cows eat feed that could be used by overwintering wildlife. They trash riparian zones and pollute recreation areas. Cows, no matter what livestock producers say, are more and more unpopular with the national public. For decades, livestock producers have denied their problems, putting out a line of talk that sells in their meetings and in ranch land cafes. But the general public isn't buying it. The rancher's fund of good will in the nation at large has been seriously eroded. It can only be restored through some national public-lands policy revamping. And by the work of ranchers who use the rangelands.
Dan Byrne, Boles Creek, California, 1998. Byrne uses solar technology to control livestock in his effort to improve streams and riparian areas.
Dan Byrne, with bureaucrats from the Forest Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service running interference, is turning things around on his operation. Old fences, built in the 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps, were down, and cattle were in creek bottoms and wetlands used by wildlife. Byrne built a lot of new fence, guaranteeing it would be maintained; he developed stock water from wells powered by solar energy, cleared brush and juniper, and reseeded grasslands. Each step had to be worked out in ways specific to the place, by people who understood local conditions. Room for failure, for learning, was built into the management system. One problem with public-lands management is the unceasing public demand for immediate unconditional success. Management ought to be a monitored but flexible process, subject to failure like any human work, based on the best science but able to respond to changing annual and seasonal conditions.
"Generating community trust," Byrne said, "between ranchers and bureaucrats and the public, is the key. If some solutions don't work out, others will. If we can learn to trust the people involved, we're on our way to common ground, to getting down to work. There's no reason wildlife and cattle can't exist together." We couldn't, because of muddy roads, get out to see his rangeland. We spent a morning talking and looking at before and after photographs of scablands transformed into thick stands of grass, and new wells, and fenced springs, projects good for both wildlife and grazing. "It was frustrating, and a lot of hard work," Byrne said. "And it cost money. But we're ready for the future."
Rocky cliff habitat, The Peninsula, California.
Jim Hainline keeps on promoting the welfare of agricultural communities. By the summer of 1998 he'd brought together a group of ranchers on the upper Williamson River—John Hyde and Clinton Basey among them—to begin talking to ecological scientists and thinking about practical ways to improve watershed conditions. Hainline could point to models like the turnaround Linda Rexroat has worked out on Sycan Marsh. The ranchers and conservationists are talking to one another in reasoning ways. Sensible talk, rather than rhetoric.
Not all the basin problems involving wetlands and agriculture are so solvable. Sumps in the Tule Lake refuge are huge ponds where irrigation water drained off farmlands is stored until it's pumped over into Lower Klamath. The Kuchel Act locks in 13,000 acres as sump land, defining them as wildlife habitat. But waterbird numbers are way down in the Tule Lake refuge, and have been for decades. The problem, Jim Hainline told me as we drove the levee banks, is habitat. Over decades the sumps silted in at a rate of around an inch every two years. Some have lost fourteen feet in depth. They tend to be shallow, muddy lakes or are overgrown with vegetation. Waterbirds prefer open water mixed with islands of marshland. Water quality problems—high pH, low dissolved oxygen, high temperatures, and unionized ammonia—are also endemic. And, despite local efforts to deny the likelihood, so long as chemical agents are used to fertilize, kill weeds, and control diseases and other pests on adjacent farmlands, there's a chance water in the sumps may be chemically contaminated. The sumps are also poor habitat for fish. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's 1998 draft integrated pest management plan says, "The artificial character of the sumps and the poor environmental quality have allowed the sucker population to approach collapse within the Tule Lake Refuge area." They're talking about endangered suckers whose welfare is of intense concern to the Klamath Indians, who have prior rights to the use of this water. They're talking about problems that could lead to courtroom confrontations. So. Not many birds, dying fish. But lots of first-rate farming. Not your ideal wildlife refuge.
Sage grouse, Clear Lake, California.
Pronghorn young, Clear Lake Hills, California.
Great Basin wild rye, Horse Mountain, California.
A proposed cure for the decrease in waterfowl numbers at Tule Lake, and for water quality problems in general, is "sump rotation." The sumps would be dried up, plowed, farmed as lease land, and an equal amount of former lease land would be flooded, turned into sump land, in hopes of restoring habitat for suckers and waterbirds. The farmers involved would be burdened with breaking out new land, a difficult and expensive proposition. I asked Jim Hainline why farmers would be interested. "They think it's their only chance to keep farming the lease lands. They want to show that farming and wetlands can work in a partnership. They think it's that or lose the lease-lands program altogether."
Hainline took me to visit Marshall Staunton, whose family has been farming in the Tule Lake country since his grandfather came from the East to homestead there in 1929. The Staunton family partnership raises wheat, barley, onions, and potatoes on 2,200 acres of private land. They also farm rented land and Tule Lake lease land.
I'd met Marshall Staunton months before, at a meeting of watershed scientists in Yreka, California, when he'd grinned and introduced himself as a "green farmer." What he meant by that, I came to realize, was that he was an on-the-ground farmer who knew that he faced environmental problems. And that he was trying to figure out solutions. Many farmers and ranchers in the Klamath Basin were in belligerent denial. Staunton was enthusiastic about the idea of farming the sumps. "We can show the world that wildlife and development are compatible," he said. "That would be a beginning." Indeed it would.
But lately the sump rotation project is on hold. Another round of research seems indicated. Farming in the sumps might stir up waterfowl disease agents. Flooding longtime farm ground might exacerbate problems with avian botulism. Water in new sumps might become overloaded with nitrogen and phosphorous (fertilizer residues) released from old farm ground, and the new sumps might become hypotrophic. Sump rotation looks increasingly like a quick fix that won't fix anything in the long run, which may cause as much or more trouble than it could possibly cure. The real cure, according to the ONRC, would be marsh restoration of the sort going on around the fringes of Klamath Lake, not any Band-Aid "sump restorations" of the sort proposed by the Fish and Wildlife Service. Forget the leaseland farming.
What about the farmers, led for generations by Reclamation and Fish and Wildlife Service bureaucrats, who built lives and communities around farming land they don't own, irrigating with water they don't own? Do we as a nation owe them anything? Or have we given them enough already? "We've got to figure something out," Marshall Staunton told me. "Farmers are down to hiring lawyers. That's all they can think of. They're settling into a siege mentality."
Voices begin to accumulate. Farmers and ranchers wonder, "What's wrong with the status quo?" Others say, "If we want to survive, we have to make some changes." Wetland redevelopment is clearly a good thing. But many locals have serious concerns as to whether these moves are sufficient to ensure the long-term integrity of the system. It's easy to say wetlands are just extemporizing, Band-Aid solutions designed to quiet public relations turmoil. "Those boys at the Bureau," a man told me, "are just trying to glue the system together until they can retire." Jim Kerns, a second-generation Klamath Falls resident and dealer in irrigation systems, has for years been saying that the only long-term solution for Klamath Basin water problems lies in deep upstream storage. Kerns advocates building two high dams. The first, at Aspen Lake, on the west side of Klamath Lake, would be 120 feet high and able to store 750,000 acre-feet. The second, in Boundary Canyon on the Lost River just downstream from Clear Lake, would be 116 feet high and able to store 40,000 acre-feet (it would dry up one lobe of Clear Lake). Kerns says this is necessary for two reasons, both having to do with the wide rainfall variations in wet and dry years. Two million acre-feet of water flow down the Klamath River in wet years, 400,000 acre-feet in dry years. Downstream salmon recovery needs at least 700,000 acre-feet per year. It's crazy, Kerns says, to let all that water get away in wet years. Shallow storage, he says, won't do. Stored water in the Klamath Basin evaporates at a rate of three-tenths of an inch per day, or 4 acre-feet per year. Water stored to a depth of 4 feet, as in wetlands being re-created along the shores of Klamath Lake, Kerns points out, leaves you with a mudflat the next spring.
Dave Mauser and Marshall Staunton, Tulelake, California, 1998. Mauser, a biologist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and Staunton, a farmer leasing federal lands, worked to implement a sump rotation plan intended to allow farming to continue on refuge lands.
But there are grave objections to Kerns's plan. The first is the cost, around $200 million for the dams (against $5 million for the Agency Lake Ranch). And wetlands at Aspen Lake would be inundated. And Boundary Canyon, according to what I've heard from non-Indian sources, is thick with archeological sites. Jim Kerns's high-dam plan might have been embraced in the West of a few decades back, but the time when it could have been sold to a national public seems to have come and gone. Imagine the lawsuits.
Everything incessantly changes. Survival depends on being willing and able to rethink techniques and technologies, strategies. Otherwise the international economic system will be quite willing to do business without us. People in the Klamath Basin are unlikely to find absolute solutions to their watershed problems, but their efforts to restore ecologies are steps toward enduring.