The Oregonian recently provided an update on the severe drought conditions at Lower Klamath National Wildlife Refuge — the nation’s first waterfowl refuge, which is located in southern Oregon and northern California.
According to The Oregonian, the 54,000-acre refuge hasn’t received water since March and the wetlands are largely dried up, which makes it the earliest dry date in 70 years.
Ron Cole, who has managed the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service’s extensive Klamath refuge system for 10 years, wishes the birds would get more air time.
“You have absolutely carved out the heart of the Pacific Flyway when you dry up the Klamath refuge,” says Cole, who stresses that he’s speaking as an individual, not for the Fish and Wildlife Service.
…the state declared a “drought emergency” for Klamath County in April. The refuge stands behind endangered fish and agriculture for water from Upper Klamath Lake. As a result, its water supply varies widely. In 2010, it got 3,700 acre-feet; in 2012, 24,000. Cole figures it needs 95,000 a year to run at full capacity.
The water wars in the Klamath region have a long and complicated history of intense competition among farmers, tribes, waterfowl, and endangered fish, and opportunities to improve the situation have been largely wasted.
According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, approximately 80 percent of the Pacific Flyway’s migrating waterfowl pass through the Klamath Basin on both spring and fall migrations, with 50 percent using the refuge. Peak waterfowl populations can reach 1.8 million birds, which represent 15 to 45 percent of the total birds wintering in California. The refuge produces between 30,000 and 60,000 waterfowl annually.
The refuge is also a fall staging area for 20 to 30 percent of the central valley population of sandhill cranes. From 20,000 to 100,000 shorebirds use refuge wetlands during the spring migration. Wintering wildlife populations include 500 bald eagle and 30,000 tundra swan. Spring and summer nesting wildlife include many colonial water birds, such as white-faced ibis, heron, egret, cormorant, grebe, white pelican, and gulls.
As for this year’s severe drought, there might be some hope in the fall if the wildlife can catch a break.
Cole’s hoping for water this fall to support migrating birds — 45,000-acre feet beginning in September would do it. As summer wears on, he’s worried disease and die-offs could spread as too many birds crowd into too few wetlands.
With the current water split, Cole says, “this refuge is just going to be collateral damage.”