Staunton and his brothers were the first to lease that field after the Service had inundated it for several years, and they planted potatoes in the drawn-down wetland. Many farmers were skeptical, but Staunton said it turned out to be one of the most productive fields he’d ever worked on.
“We had never seen a yield like that,” Staunton said. The temporary restoration of a sliver of old Tule Lake had largely eliminated pests and disease, greatly reduced the need for chemical inputs and boosted the quality and quantity of potatoes.
Just two or three years of mimicking a wetland had revived the field’s very soils, while also providing crucial habitat for waterfowl. Staunton said he spoke so highly of the arrangement that, by the time his family’s lease was up, someone else had put in a higher bid on that ground.
“I bragged it up left and right, and of course we lost the lease,” Staunton said. “My brothers wouldn’t talk to me for a month or two.”
Following that success, Fish and Wildlife began implementing the Walking Wetlands program throughout the refuges, temporarily flooding as much as 1,200 field acres for between one and four years at a time. Because of their lower disease and pest levels, the drained fields became especially popular among organic farmers.
Farmers in the program had so much success that Walking Wetlands started to pop up on private ground outside the refuge as a kind of mobile soil revitalization service. Farmers who took a field out of production and turned it into a wetland could farm an equivalent acreage on the refuge’s sharecrop lands, where they’d leave a quarter to a third of their grain in the field for migrating birds.
But dry years have stunted this process, with the refuges receiving little to no water during Klamath Project curtailments. Farmers and birds have lost out.
“It was huge. People were really liking it,” said John Vradenburg, supervisory biologist for the Klamath Basin National Wildlife Refuge Complex. “But now it’s falling off the table.”
John Vradenburg, supervisory biologist for the Klamath Basin National Wildlife Refuge Complex, checks a bird for signs of avian botulism
To keep the practice going, conservation groups have begun to work with irrigators on private lands with more reliable access to water. This spring, the Klamath Basin Farming and Wetland Collaborative, led by waterfowl conservation group Ducks Unlimited, received a $3.8 million grant to help pay farmers to turn their own fields into wetlands or leave behind some of their grain.
Most of those projects will focus on land in Klamath Drainage District, where many producers already irrigate in the fall and winter, when water is less in demand. The district also has a state water right permit separate from the Klamath Project, which they used to divert about 33,000 acre-feet from the Klamath River this summer — these were the only fields in the project irrigated with surface water originating in Upper Klamath Lake.
The situation is much different on the adjacent Lower Klamath Refuge, which received only a pittance of water this summer. Despite its wetlands predating the very existence of the United States, it has the lowest-priority water right in the project. Chris Colson, regional biologist for Ducks Unlimited, said this program should be enough to replace up to 30% of the loss in food production caused by chronic lack of water on the refuge.
“It’s the recognition that birds don’t care,” Colson said. “Ultimately it’s not about saving the refuge necessarily — it’s about providing for waterfowl. We haven’t stopped working on the refuge, but we recognize that we need to work with the irrigators if we want to continue to meet our waterfowl objectives.”
Staunton envisions a more permanent expansion of Walking Wetlands throughout private lands in the project: Farmers could enter into contracts with Fish and Wildlife to take a portion of their land out of production for compensation, flooding it in wet years and fallowing it in dry ones. It would be similar to a conservation easement, only producers would be able to rotate the wetland throughout their ground to get the agricultural benefits.
“If it’s one sixth of your farm and it moved around, it wouldn’t matter because you just factored it into your rotation,” Staunton said.
Wet years would allow the network of flooded fields to recharge groundwater and provide waterfowl habitat, while dry ones would concentrate most of that onto the refuges. But it would all require a reliable project irrigation supply to work.
“You’re much more willing to experiment if you know that things are going to be OK,” said Tulelake Farmer Ben DuVal, president of the Klamath Water Users Association. “But why do I want to continue to make those kinds of investments if I don’t know if I’m going to have water next year?”
Many project farmers care deeply about where they live and want to help the species they share the basin with. Tulelake Irrigation District, for example, used pumps and even a helicopter to consolidate all the water on Tule Lake Refuge into a healthier wetland unit to reduce the risk of avian botulism this summer. Aided by an additional infusion of water from Reclamation and abundant wildfire smoke, they succeeded — refuge biologists remarkably recorded zero cases of botulism this year.