Last year, tens of thousands of water birds became paralyzed and died in a gruesome botulism outbreak caused by lack of water at two wildlife refuges on California’s border with Oregon.

And it could happen again this summer.

The crippling drought that has plagued the region for years shows no sign of ending, and there’s been little relief from the bureaucratic gridlock and lawsuits over water that has slowly starved the Klamath Basin refuges of their supplies over the past two decades.

There is a small glimmer of hope for these birds, though.

The California Waterfowl Association, a hunter-funded conservation organization, is in the process of buying a small amount of water from a local farmer to help the birds this year when the risk of botulism is high.

While it’s not much water and only for one year, wetland advocates hope the purchase could grow into a much larger, permanent solution — one that could be a critical turning point to warding off summer after summer of birds dying horrible deaths.

If the plan works, it may also be what restores these important wildlife sanctuaries that once drew in 7 million waterbirds each year and that are now at risk of becoming permanently dry, brush-covered wastelands.

But to carry the plan out, the wildlife refuges will need help from the newly-elected Biden administration, Congress and from a state that prides itself on environmental stewardship but has done next to nothing over the years to keep the refuges from going dry.

The fallout from radically altering the natural environment in the Klamath Basin has been decades in the making.

Around the turn of the last century, homesteaders and the federal government began draining the giant wetlands in the Klamath Basin for farming.

To preserve some of the habitats that would almost certainly have been plowed over, President Teddy Roosevelt in 1908 turned 50,000 acres of what was once Lower Klamath Lake into the nation’s first federal waterfowl refuge. Twenty years later, President Calvin Coolidge designated 39,000 acres of the adjacent Tule Lake as its own national wildlife refuge.

The federal government’s Klamath Project radically transformed the watershed to irrigate what’s now 230,000 acres of farmland. Lower Klamath Lake, for example, was cut entirely off from its only source of water, the Klamath River.

For much of the last century, the Klamath Project’s network of irrigation canals supplied the refuges with water. The refuges in turn provided critical breeding areas for local birds as well as a vital stopover for millions of migrating birds each spring and fall.

But the refuges’ water supply began to shrink about 20 years ago, when a changing climate collided with the consequences of more than a century of agriculture and development.

Salmon began to critically decline in the Klamath River below four dams that are downstream of the farms and refuges. Similar collapses were underway for two species of suckers that had once swam in the wetlands that are now farmers’ fields and in Upper Klamath Lake, the primary source of water for the Klamath Project.

The fish are sacred to a number of Native American tribes who live along the waterways.

Fearing the fish would go extinct, the tribes, environmentalists and coastal fishing associations began securing victories through the courts that left more water for endangered fish.

Over time, that has gradually cut the refuges off from their supplies. The refuges are at the bottom of a federal water-rights pecking order that allocates water first to fish, then to farms.

Lower Klamath refuge is in particularly poor shape. Many of Lower Klamath’s ponds and nesting islands are little more than dusty brush patches from having not been flooded in a generation. Even in the best of years, it gets delivered less than half of what refuge managers need to keep ponds flooded for waterbirds.

Last year, following one of the driest wet seasons on record, the situation reached a crisis point.

The federal government threatened to shut off water deliveries in the spring, prompting local farmers and their allies to rally in a miles-long tractor protest. The Trump administration sent local farmers some water so they could grow the crops they’d already planted, but there was hardly any left to go to the refuges.

Lower Klamath received next to no water last year from the Klamath Project. At the same time, the largest pond on its sister refuge, Tule Lake, was drawn down to its lowest levels in decades, exposing to the sun much of its nearly 14-square miles of thigh-deep mud, covered in a sheen of water.

In the summer and early fall heat, the botulism bacteria that are found naturally in the mud emerged from dormancy. Ducks and shorebirds drawn to one of the only wet areas on the refuges died in staggering numbers, despite teams of biologists spending three months on airboats collecting their maggot-covered carcasses to try to limit the destruction.

The biologists estimate more than 60,000 ducks and shorebirds died before the first fall frosts.

‘They’re in the process of going extinct’

Conditions remain dangerously dry in the Klamath Basin this year.

With the rainy season almost over, the region is below average for rain and snowfall, and the amount of water replenishing Upper Klamath Lake has federal officials warning of “a historically difficult hydrologic year.” Current projections have farmers bracing to receive as little as 20 percent of what they need to farm, which means very little will go to the refuges.

There’s little indication that the rival factions with claims to Klamath River water are going to stop fighting any time soon either.

The Klamath Tribes are threatening to sue the federal government to keep more water in Upper Klamath Lake this spring to protect suckers.

“We’re mainly really concerned about our fish,” said Don Gentry, the chairman of the Klamath Tribes, based in Chiloquin, Ore. “They’re in the process of going extinct. And we have taken this position that we really need to protect those (lake) levels, especially since they went down last year. And that’s something that we have control over.”

Meanwhile, tribes downstream in California worry there won’t be enough water to provide flows for young fish in the river.

To the tribes, the obvious solution is the farmers who use river water to irrigate their alfalfa, potatoes, garlic, wheat, onions, horseradish and other crops in the loamy soil that was once wetlands need to scale back their operations.

“I think we have to downsize the agricultural project. I don’t know if that’s fewer acres or growing something differently, but it’s every year now, there’s not enough water to go around,” said Craig Tucker, who advocates on behalf of the Karuk Tribe.

Farmers say that before the current regulatory system was in place, there were years this dry yet they received their share of water. They contend it had little impact on fish populations, particularly salmon downstream

“There’s no correlation between flows and salmon returns,” said Paul Simmons, executive director of the Klamath Water Users Association, which advocates for 1,200 local farmers.

It’s a claim the tribes dispute.

Both sides do agree on one thing. The birds are probably going to lose out.

“Whether you’re talking about wildlife on the refuge, or wildlife on the farmland, which is abundant as well, it’s going to suffer. Period,” Simmons said.

“It’s always been this, ‘How do we split it four ways?’ ” Tucker said. “And it’s just getting harder and harder, and it looks like the birds, unfortunately, are always going to be last in line.”

Buying water rights to save a species

It’s unclear whether the Biden administration will make the Klamath a priority. Biden’s Interior Secretary, Debra Haaland, hasn’t been confirmed yet, and if she gets Senate approval, she faces a problem administrations before hers have failed to solve. The Trump administration was the last to try. The administration sent a special Interior Department envoy to the Basin in the hopes he could forge a lasting peace out of a “coalition of the willing.”

After three years, the talks collapsed last year.

For now, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which manages the Klamath Project, is “working in real time with stakeholders” and coming up with “a series of options for mitigating and avoiding what occurred in 2020 and will continue to seek opportunities to help wildlife refuges,” spokeswoman Mary Lee Knecht said in an emailed statement.

She said that might include “potential transfer opportunities” to send water to the refuges.

That’s where The California Waterfowl Association’s plan comes in.

The association says a rancher with an entitlement to a portion of the water flowing into Upper Klamath Lake is willing to sell his “water right” this year and send the refuges 4,500 acre-feet of water.

When factoring in how much would seep into the dry soil, that amount is the equivalent of flooding about 1,500 of Lower Klamath’s 50,000 acres.

It’s not much, but it’s a start of what the California Waterfowl Association and other non-profits like The Nature Conservancy and Audubon California hope will eventually lead to permanent transfers.

The same farmer offering to sell water believes he could permanently secure up to 30,000 acre-feet of water for the refuges, through a complicated series of land purchases the rancher would make to acquire his neighbors’ water rights.

Because the negotiations are underway, the rancher asked the California Waterfowl Association not to tell me his name, but Jeff Volberg, the association’s lobbyist, tells me he grew up in the town of Tulelake, spent years guiding hunters on the refuges and he’d like his legacy to be helping restore them.

But buying the water rights is expensive. Earlier this year, California Waterfowl Association set a fundraising goal of $900,000 to acquire just the 4,500 acre feet.

The permanent water rights purchase of 30,000 acre feet is estimated to cost $60 million — and donations alone won’t cover it. The federal government, with congressional approval, will have to pay.

The state of California also may need to step up. For wetland advocates, it’s long past time that a state that prides itself on environmental protection starts paying attention to the ecological crisis on these last remaining wetlands on its northern border.

“I don’t want to sound over the top and overly dramatic,” said California Waterfowl Association president John Carlson. “But to me, it’s an environmental crime that refuge doesn’t have the water that it needs.”

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Ryan Sabalow covers environment, general news and enterprise and investigative stories for McClatchy’s Western newspapers. Before joining The Bee in 2015, he was a reporter at The Auburn Journal, The Redding Record Searchlight and The Indianapolis Star.

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