Fish fight fowl for water

 

CALIFORNIA

Each fall, about 20 million migrating waterfowl rest and feed in the Lower Klamath National Wildlife Refuge, a remnant of once expansive wetlands and lakes in Northern California. This year, they almost got a rude shock: no water. In September, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation stopped delivery of Klamath River water to the refuge, in order to keep the river flowing for both endangered fish and farmers.

Luckily, a two-inch rainstorm helped alleviate the drought this season, and 70 percent of the refuge's wetlands were flooded by the time the migration peaked. Still, refuge managers remain worried.

"All in all, we kind of dodged a bullet," says assistant refuge manager Fran Maiss. "Water in the Bureau's Klamath Project is over-subscribed, and the shortages are more likely to be the norm than the exception."

That's in part because recent federal rulings say in order to bolster habitat for endangered coho salmon and suckerfish, 90 percent of the water must be left in the river.

Judges have made it clear, says the Bureau's Jim Bryant, "that endangered species come first, and then Indian trust asset needs, and then the irrigators." Refuges are at the bottom of the list, he says.

But waterfowl shouldn't have to fight fish for water, says Jim Walthan of The Wilderness Society. "If the refuges were managed better, the salmon's condition would also improve." Walthan points out that more water would be available for both salmon and birds if less water was given to irrigators (HCN, 8/16/99: Reviving a refuge).

Although local farmers say they can't be held entirely responsible for supplying water to distant downstream salmon, Dan Ashe, chief of the National Wildlife Refuge System, says reducing irrigation for farming in the refuge is one way to secure more water. His office is working on a plan that could also include developing more water storage.