Emily Downing

Woven Together by Water: Ecosystems, Communities, and Irrigation in the Klamath Basin

Growing cereal grains, like growing any other crop, takes time, patience, and hard work. For generations, farmers in the Klamath Basin have produced grains like barley that are used for everything from brewing beer to feeding livestock.

Luther Horsley, a third-generation farmer and rancher in the Basin, grows between 500 and 2,000 acres of cereal grains (feed barley and wheat) each year, as well as some alfalfa for his cows. After harvesting his fields in the fall, he tries to flood them to enrich the soil – if there is water available for him to use. This flooding after the fall harvest has tremendous benefits for preparing the soil for a spring planting and provides critical seasonal wildlife habitat. When fields are submerged long term – for a season or two in Walking Wetlands fashion (a refuge-facilitated program that helps farmers turn parcels of their own land into de-facto wetlands in exchange for access to on-refuge farming) – farmers who grow row crops like onions and potatoes can also see a reduction in pests like nematodes and white rot, and weeds like quackgrass and Canada thistle can be reduced.

If we have an adequate water supply in the Basin, we can make a lot of habitat available for wildlife.

Luther Horsley, Klamath Basin farmer

Not only does this practice improve Horsley’s productivity, it also provides habitat for the millions of Pacific Flyway migratory waterbirds that depend on the Klamath Basin as stopover grounds on fall and spring migrations. In the spring, there is typically much more water in the system to create wetland habitat for migratory birds. In the fall, south-bound birds often depend on the fields that are flooded post-harvest for that habitat.

In normal water years with a good grain harvest, Horsley said, ducks and other waterfowl really love the flooded fields combined with the leftover grain as they pass through from late October through December. But, as with any irrigation practice, this late fall flooding hinges entirely on the presence of water in the system at the end of the season.

“If we have an adequate [water] supply available in the Project, we can make a lot of habitat available for the wildlife,” he said. “It really doesn’t matter where you are, if you’re doing something the birds like, they’ll show up.”

The project he refers to is the Klamath Project – the name for the gigantic, interconnected irrigation infrastructure that was designed in 1906 to deliver water from the Klamath River to the Klamath Basin’s farms and ranches. It’s a complex system, according to Brad Kirby, who is the Tulelake Irrigation District (TID) manager. The Project reflects the complexities of both Oregon and California water rights, as well as the network of irrigation districts and national wildlife refuges that depend on the water in the system.

“There’s so much to it; there’s so many nuances and caveats,” he said. “We have canals running over canals. We have pumps pumping from underneath canals. It’s pretty amazing how the infrastructure was created to run multiple systems throughout the various districts, as well as over the entire Klamath Project.”

The Center Canal and the Klamath Straits Drain (and adjacent flooded fields) stretch out to the northeast beneath Wild Horse Butte in early March of 2020.

As the Project originally drained the Klamath Basin’s historic lakes and wetlands to facilitate land development for agriculture, the presence of its infrastructure began to replace the natural cycles of water flow through the basin. Historically, snow melting in the mountains brought a pulse of water to the Basin in the spring, where wetlands retained it throughout the summer and the fall. With the irrigation infrastructure created by the Klamath Project, that water became available throughout summer and fall as well, enabling agricultural practices like the late fall flooding used by Horsley and others.

Depending on the crop being grown (the main ones produced in the Basin are short grains like barley and wheat, alfalfa, and row crops like potatoes and onions), the Project’s infrastructure means that water can be applied in the spring before planting, throughout the summer, or in the late fall after harvest. The result is a water cycle that, although highly modified, delivers water to the footprint of the Basin’s historic wetlands. On agricultural fields and lands where water is applied and some semblance of habitat exists, waterbirds and waterfowl will use these sites to meet various seasonal requirements. Such is the case for late fall-flooded barley fields, where shallow water and high-calorie seeds attract migrating and over-wintering birds.

But as water availability decreases in the Basin due to drought and an increased downstream water allocation, this late fall flooding is rapidly unsustainable. Faced with the loss of water and the threat of violations resulting from nutrient inputs to the system, many producers believe they have no other option but to convert to sprinklers. Although this conversion to “more efficient” irrigation infrastructure is applicable in many situations, large scale conversion is being considered in several key floodplains and along Upper Klamath Lake where it may have significant negative impacts on waterfowl habitat.

As we’ve started to lose that water, our peak fall bird numbers have decreased by half in the last 10 years

Dustin Taylor, USFWS, Klamath NWR Complex

The Project was designed for efficiency, however, according to Klamath Drainage District (KDD) Manager Scott White. Water is diverted out of Upper Klamath Lake and circulated through the irrigation districts in the Basin, supplemented in some districts by water from the Lost River, and eventually ends up back in the Klamath River.

“We’ve consistently referenced studies that report we use each drop three times on the Klamath Project,” said White, whose district is at the end of the Klamath Project water journey.

That efficiency, however, is dependent on recirculating water between and within irrigation districts, something that’s been harder as the costs of the electricity needed to facilitate the pumping continue to skyrocket. Kirby calculates his district’s annual power expenditure as being $600,000-$750,000. These costs have escalated dramatically in recent decades. Before 2005, TID was spending $50,000 each year on average. The catch?

“We are using half the power we used historically,” Kirby said. “Today, if we were to operate as we did historically, our power costs would be $1.2 million on average.”

Driving those power costs down and improving the system’s efficiency – therefore potentially making it possible for more water to reach farmers and the refuges – is why the local irrigation districts are engaged with entities like the Farmer’s Conservation Alliance (FCA), a nonprofit that develops programs and technologies for irrigation modernization that benefit agriculture, the environment, and community. One of the goals of the partnership is to look for ways to integrate renewable energy into their operations to cut these power costs. Improving water management efficiency, however, is tops on the list. Scott McCaulou, who is the program director for FCA, said they’re working with irrigation district managers to develop hydraulic models to better understand where Project water is going and how it is being used. 

“Largely these projects are about managing water better so it can be used in other places, whether that’s providing more water to users, or sending it to the refuges or downstream for the fish,” McCaulou said.

Irrigation pipes sit next to a canal on Tule Lake National Wildlife Refuge in early March.

At the time the Klamath Project was designed, the majority of the system was meant to be flood irrigated. With the open-channel flow system the project uses, irrigators have either turned the water “on” or “off” when they are flooding. Newer, on-farm irrigation infrastructure like sprinklers, on the other hand, provide downtime in the system (usually two to four hours per day) when they aren’t watering and therefore aren’t drawing from ditches.

“That operation spill [when farmers aren’t drawing water] is being used to irrigate other land elsewhere,” Kirby said. “The high level of efficiency of the system comes from the management and reuse of that operational spill.”

But sprinklers and closed-pipe irrigation, while reducing water loss from evaporation, also reduce the amount of water that saturates the soil and returns to the area’s aquifer – and reduce the amount of surface water available for wildlife. Plus, these efficiency tools won’t stop farmers from pumping groundwater from wells to supplement Klamath Project water in years when policies reduce agricultural water supplies, which are increasingly common.

“Now we have wells supplementing what would have otherwise gone through the lake and it appears there may be negative impacts on the groundwater,” said Gene Souza, who is the Klamath Irrigation District (KID) manager. “I believe many aquifers aren’t being recharged because the natural flows to the former lake bed are being diverted away.”

Lower Klamath Lake and Tule Lake National Wildlife Refuges (NWR) are part of this system as well. The water that ends up on the refuges is dependent not only on what is passed to them through the project, but also on the water that filters into the ground  – into the aquifer – from irrigation. Dustin Taylor, the integrated pest management specialist for the Klamath NWR Complex, said the alteration in natural flows to the lakes and wetlands on the refuge is troubling.

“It affects everything,” he said. “If your groundwater drops, it reduces your surface water. Wetlands just aren’t going to function the same if that occurs.”

When the wetlands don’t function, Taylor said, the habitat available to migratory birds drops drastically. On refuge and off-refuge systems function – or disfunction – together. The loss of agricultural habitat for birds and wildlife is the first punch; the loss of the water that makes it through the Klamath Project to the refuges is the second. If more water is lost from the Project and from the subsequent pumping of groundwater from the aquifer, the refuges would have to take water away from the co-op farming land they support so their permanent marsh units can be kept wet. This would eliminate the habitat provided by the co-op fields and ultimately reduce the amount of on-refuge waterfowl and wildlife habitat.

A herd of mule deer gather on a field on Tule Lake National Wildlife Refuge in early March.

“As we’ve started to lose that water, our peak fall bird numbers have decreased by half in the last 10 years,” Taylor said.

Recently, 50,000 ducklings and goslings on the Lower Klamath Lake NWR were saved by an emergency water delivery to the Refuge. Lower Klamath Lake NWR, along with the other refuges in the Basin, had been cut off from the Project’s water deliveries for the season after the Bureau of Reclamation announced in early May that water availability in the Project would be cut in half from March availability estimates. The communities of the Klamath Basin scrambled until a June decision from the Bureau of Reclamation restored the original water allocation. The NWR system, however, was left out of that June decision. A recent push from multiple groups was critical in advocating for a July emergency water delivery to Lower Klamath Lake Refuge, which, though minimal, ensured there would be enough water for the refuge’s nesting population of migratory waterfowl to survive through to the fall.

You can flood habitat for migratory waterfowl and also enhance your abilities to produce.

Luther Horsley, Klamath Basin farmer

The May announcement also left farmers who had already planted a crop based on an earlier delivery estimate in the lurch. Rob Wilson, who operates the University of California Extension Office in Tulelake, points to the stress the lack of water places on the farmers who depend on water from the Project. Although the Bureau of Reclamation restored water deliveries to farmers for the 2020 season, drought conditions mean that little water may not be enough.

“You can only do so much,” Wilson said. “Crops have certain water needs to be successful, and you can’t really short that.”

And with that loss of production, the Basin’s agricultural community, which is already teetering on the brink, must contend with a historic threat to their livelihoods and rich heritage. If that disappears, so does the knowledge held deeply by people throughout the Basin: that wildlife conservation and agricultural production can work together for mutual benefit.

“You can flood habitat for migratory waterfowl and also enhance your abilities to produce,” Horsley said.

Despite the size of these threats, people in the Klamath Basin are trying to work together to fix the problem. The irrigation district managers have each other on speed dial, and work frequently not only with landowners but also with the refuge managers to make sure their water use decisions have as many cross-boundary benefits as possible.

A Lower Klamath NWR wetland in early August 2020.

“When it comes down to it, we’ve done whatever we can within our powers to be creative and help the refuge, whether it’s management of water or whatever else,” Kirby said. “We try to make stuff happen to provide more benefit for fish and wildlife.

In a system like the Klamath where decreasing water availability makes for tight margins, increasing the flexibility of the system is the key to creating this mutual benefit and enhancing the effects of collaboration. By using technological and infrastructure improvements to help water users be more effective and provide the refuges access to water at critical times of year, projects like the ones the irrigation districts are working on with FCA would help enable adaptability in the face of uncertainty. And that, ultimately, will help clear the path to a positive future for both agriculture and migratory birds in the Klamath Basin.

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