Irrigation District, Ducks Unlimited and the U.S. Fish and
Wildlife Service teamed up to move thousands of acre-feet of
water from the refuge’s larger, muddier Sump 1A to its
smaller Sump 1B. They intended to eliminate as much shallow
water (the ideal breeding grounds for botulism in late
summer) as possible and encourage the germination of wetland
But for the
past three weeks, farmers on federal leaselands in the
southwest chunk of the refuge have been diverting water
from Sump 1B to irrigate grain, alfalfa and row crops
like potatoes. That, combined with intense, unseasonable
heat that has accelerated evaporation, has made the sump
lose more than 1,300 acre-feet of water since the
beginning of July.
dropping like a rock,” said TID Manager Brad Kirby.
the heat was more to blame than the irrigators, who
according to his calculations make up 20% of Sump 1B’s
water loss at most.
our desire to see 1B dry, but I can’t control
evaporation,” Kirby said. “The effect of diverting the
minimal diversions that we are taking out of there pales
in comparison to the evapotransporative loss.”
Kirby said heavy smoke from
the Bootleg Fire has actually slowed the evaporation,
causing the sump’s level to stabilize over the past four
days. TID has also put a limitation on the amount of
water that can come out of Sump 1B to 15-20 cubic feet
per second, or about 40 acre-feet per day.
When Sump 1A began to
drain, TID and refuge managers didn’t actually know how
much water it held, only being able to estimate it
through a formula developed in the 1980s. Because
decades of keeping the sump submerged had caused the
lake bed to silt in so severely, blurring the line
between water and land, less water was available to pump
into Sump 1B than Kirby expected.
“We took what we thought to
be an overly conservative approach to identifying the
amount of water that was in 1A,” he said.
Irrigators and biologists
had initially expected that some water from Sump 1A
wouldn’t fit into Sump 1B and would be leftover to use
for irrigation. Kirby said the district gave leaseland
farmers a rough idea of how much that would be (making
no promises), but that there wasn’t even enough water to
fill Sump 1B after the chips fell. On top of that, a
long stretch of unseasonably hot days meant the old
formula underestimated evaporation from the sump.
Still, Kirby felt the
district needed to provide some water to the leaseland
farmers in the Southwest Sump, a significant portion of
which has been idled due to the lack of surface water
coming from Upper Klamath Lake.
“We’re trying to do
everything that we can to keep some water in 1B and keep
it from dropping as fast as it was, and try to get it to
hold, while also minimizing the impacts to the
community,” Kirby said.
The legality of the
diversions is as muddy as the bottom of Tule Lake.
Act, passed in 1964, allowed the leasing of refuge
lands for farming as long as agricultural activity was
consistent with the refuge goals of “proper waterfowl
management.” Farming grain and leaving some behind as
bird food generally aligns with that directive, but some
argue that the planting of alfalfa and row crops doesn’t
contribute to waterfowl habitat or food.
Kirby was not able to say
how much of the irrigated leaselands are alfalfa and row
crops versus grain.
The western edge of Sump
1B, closest to the “English Channel” that connects it to
Sump 1A, is in decent shape, but water levels decrease
further to the east to the point where some areas are
almost dry. A colony of grebes on the north edge of the
sump had abandoned their floating nests after the water
turned to mud.
On the southeastern shore
of the sump, a pump adds a small amount of tail water
into 1B, attempting to make up for the water that’s
leaving it either directly into the atmosphere or
through a pump on the southwestern edge of the sump to
be used for irrigation.
Rachel Zwillinger, water
policy advisor for Defenders of Wildlife, said while she
understands the drought has been hard on everyone in the
Klamath Basin and farmers need to make a living, few
areas are in as dire straits as Lower Klamath and Tule
Lake National Wildlife Refuges, which haven’t received a
full water allocation in decades and rely on the Klamath
Project for water.
Due to this summer’s
incredibly hot and dry conditions, a botulism outbreak
on Sump 1B was probably in the cards even without
irrigation diversions. But Zwillinger said that Project
irrigators taking from what little water Tule Lake
refuge does have certainly isn’t helping.
availability is already so limited, further diminishing
it in any way is a huge problem,” she said. “It’s
another big impact that further reduces habitat
availability and increases the risk of disease.”
Kirby said the district is
trying to increase the amount of water being pumped into
Sump 1B to offset the diversions and some of the
evaporation. Some private well owners have also opted to
direct some of their water to the refuge to stabilize
the sump level. He said TID is keeping refuge staff in
close contact to update them on the situation.
“TID’s doing everything we
possibly can to minimize that but also to save the
vastly reduced crop acreage out there,” Kirby said.