Water-poor refuge sees disease spread
Fish, farming have priority, so marshland for waterfowl fades
TULELAKE, Calif. – Dave Mauser walked the edge of a mudflat, peering underneath the dried brown rushes where one coot after another had gone to hide and then die.
“Now the coots are getting the worst of it,” said Mauser, head biologist on the Lower Klamath National Wildlife Refuge, the nation’s first large marshland preserved for waterfowl habitat. “Prior to that it was the snow geese and the white-fronted geese.”
Standing in line for scarce water behind both endangered fish and agriculture, Lower Klamath Lake has watched one marsh after another dry up in recent years. Now migratory geese, ducks and other waterfowl that come here by the millions, following the Pacific Flyway, are so closely packed together that an outbreak of avian cholera has killed more than 10,000 birds.
First reported in the United States in the 1940s, the disease is not new to the refuge. Bald eagles that congregate here in winter depend on the deadly bacteria to provide easy food. What is different about this year is that only half the refuge’s 31,000 acres of marsh are flooded, creating perfect conditions for a broader kill off.
More than 260 species – ruddy ducks, cinnamon teal, white-faced ibis, sandhill cranes, white pelicans, snowy egrets and bald eagles – pass through in the spring.
The historic refuge got its origins after wildlife photographer William L. Finley wrote a story for Atlantic Monthly about market hunters wiping out white egrets and grebes here for feathers to decorate ladies’ hats.
President Theodore Roosevelt signed the executive order creating Lower Klamath in 1908. It was the second of 55 refuges he would create, but the first to offer a large area of land for habitat.
The problem is that it is at the end of a long line for water, legally and literally. When it comes to water in the West, first in time is first in right.
Three years earlier, in 1905, Congress created the Klamath Reclamation Project, which created a complex of pumps and canals that drained lakes and marshes and fed water to farmlands. The refuge started receiving water from the project in the 1940s, when a tunnel was cut to pump excess water out of Tule Lake.
Tule Lake remained the primary source of the refuge’s water until 2006, when farmers lost a subsidized electric rate that made it cheap to pump water. Now most of the water for the refuge comes from the Klamath River.
Meanwhile, a deal that raises the refuge’s water priority on a par with farms, while laying out how water is divided in drought years, has been stymied in Congress.
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