Over the last several years, the Lower Klamath Basin Wildlife Refuge has fallen victim to water prioritization—coming in a dismal third behind endangered fish and agriculture. As drought has stressed resources over the last several years, drying up one marsh after another and crowding waterfowl populations into remaining waters, a perfect storm scenario was set in motion.
As reported in the Times Standard, when avian cholera broke out, the stressed animals and environment offered the perfect conditions for a run-away plague.
Waterfowl refuge ravaged by drought and disease
Lying on the east side of the Cascade Range along the Oregon-California border, the shallow lakes and marshes of the Upper Klamath Basin were once known as the Everglades of the West, providing a place to rest and eat for untold millions of birds on the Pacific Flyway.
More than 260 species -- ruddy ducks, cinnamon teal, white-faced ibis, sandhill cranes, white pelicans, snowy egrets and bald eagles -- pass through in the spring. Some stay the summer to breed, but most fly north to the Arctic to nest, returning here in the fall. Some spend the winter, and others continue south to California's Central Valley and the Salton Sea.
The historic refuge got its origins after wildlife photographer William L. Finley wrote a story for Atlantic Monthly about market hunters wiping out white egrets and grebes here for feathers to decorate ladies' hats.
President Theodore Roosevelt, an avid bird hunter and amateur taxidermist in his youth, signed the executive order creating Lower Klamath in 1908. It was the second of 55 refuges he would create, but the first to offer a large area of land for habitat.
In the 1950s the refuge would see 5 million to 7 million birds annually. Now numbers have dropped to about 2 million, primarily due to the loss of nesting habitat in the far north.
But it still “may be the most important real estate for migratory birds in North America,”' said refuge manager Ron Cole.
The problem is that it is at the end of a long line for water, legally and literally. When it comes to water in the West, first in time is first in right.
Three years earlier, in 1905, Congress created the Klamath Reclamation Project, which created a vast complex of pumps and canals that drained lakes and marshes and fed water to farmlands. The refuge started receiving water from the project in the 1940s, when a tunnel was cut to pump excess water out of Tule Lake, the end of the line for the water running through the irrigation project.
Tule Lake remained the primary source of the refuge's water until 2006, when farmers lost a subsidized electric rate that made it cheap to pump water. Now most of the water for the refuge comes from the Klamath River, through the Ady Canal.
No matter the source, the refuge does not get water until the fish and the farms are satisfied. The last full delivery was in 2006.
”It worked well for decades,” said Cole, until more water had to be allocated to the river for endangered salmon, and to Upper Klamath Lake for endangered suckers.
Now it is the refuge that suffers from drought.
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Are you aware of any other waterfowl refuge ravaged by drought and disease? What measures are being taken to protect them?