Troubled Waters

Diking, damming, pollution and competing uses threaten the "lifeblood" of the National Wildlife Refuge System

  • Michael Satchell
  • Feb 01, 2003

THE VIEW from the levee encompasses a scene of beauty both bucolic and bizarre. Off to the right, and well below the dirt road that splits the viewscape almost to the horizon, lie fields of emerald green alfalfa undulating in a gentle breeze. To the left and higher than the road stretches a vast flat plain of brilliant yellow that, from a distance, could be a field of ripening flax. But closer examination reveals that this "crop" is actually a giant pool of standing water covered by a thick mat of oxygen-gobbling algae.

To Phil Norton, recently retired manager of the six Klamath Basin national wildlife refuges on the Oregon-California border, this vista at Tule Lake refuge is an all-too-familiar sign of an ecosystem being slowly destroyed by lack of fresh water. More than 60 farmers who lease 20,500 acres on the refuge (compared with 14,000 acres devoted to wetlands habitat) siphon off much of this precious resource, thanks to a 1964 law that they say gives them rights to the cropland.

To replenish refuge ponds and vary their levels at different times of year--necessary to maintain appropriate wildlife habitat--Tule Lake's staff needs large, regular inflows of fresh water. Yet the refuges get only what little water is left after the federal Bureau of Reclamation supplies farmers and other competing users. Even in wet years, the Klamath refuges do not get as much water as they need. And during times of drought, battles over this critical resource turn ugly, with the protected areas generally coming out the losers.

BIRDS OR ONIONS? Irrigation systems throughout the Klamath Basin increase yields of crops such as alfalfa, onions and potatoes. Yet farming on and near the region's Tule Lake and Lower Klamath refuges--the only refuges saddled with agricultural uses--siphons away water that could go to birds and other wildlife.

Water is the lifeblood of the National Wildlife Refuge System, and inadequate water quantity and quality are among the biggest threats to refuges nationwide. "On the vast majority of our national wildlife refuges, water is the critical issue," says the system's deputy chief, Jim Kurth. "It is the resource that limits our ability to provide first-class fish and wildlife habitat." Short water supply is the most pervasive problem, with managers from at least 150 refuges reporting conflicts with competing users. Other challenges include flows tainted by pesticides, fertilizers, animal waste and other pollutants; huge navigation and flood control projects that alter refuge water sources; inundation of saltwater marshes by rising seas; and wetlands draining by private land owners. Such problems are only expected to worsen in the future, adds Kurth, "as population grows, and there is increasing demand for water from urban areas, agriculture and industry."

At Tule Lake, the effects of water shortages are obvious. Instead of seasonal wetlands, deep pools, wading shallows and vegetation-rich islands, there are muck-bottomed ponds containing fertilizer and other agricultural chemicals where a few endangered sucker fish struggle to survive. The water's surface is covered by a carpet of algae thick enough in places for waterfowl to walk on.

The impact on wildlife has been predictably dramatic. Strategically located on the Pacific Flyway, Klamath's wetlands historically served as a critical stopover for 80 percent of North American migratory waterfowl that travel this western route. A half century ago, some 6 million ducks, geese and swans would shade out the sun twice a year as they migrated between their northern breeding grounds and southern wintering habitat. But today those epochal wildlife spectacles are a distant memory, and the migration is down to about 1.5 million birds.

"The importance of the Klamath Basin to the Pacific Flyway cannot be overstated," says NWF attorney Jan Hasselman, who before joining the federation in 2001 represented both conservation groups and commercial fishermen in court battles over the region's water. "Until we have a fair plan to allocate the Klamath Basin's scarce water over the long term, these crown jewels of our wildlife refuge system will continue to deteriorate."

Today's troubles on the refuges have been more than 100 years in the making. At the turn of the century, the Klamath Basin was covered by some 190,000 acres of shallow wetlands, an area larger than Lake Tahoe. The Klamath River and its tributaries were among the richest salmon and steelhead trout habitats in the West, and lakes teemed with freshwater mullet (also called sucker fish). But in 1902, the newly formed Bureau of Reclamation began to build dams, reservoirs and pipelines, diverting water from the river system and draining 80 percent of its wetlands to uncover rich peat soils for farming. Both Tule Lake and Lower Klamath refuges also were created during this period, but because of the federal government's interpretation of refuge water rights--an interpretation conservationists reject--the sanctuaries have been on virtual life support ever since.

In 2001, decades of competition for the basin's scarce water reached an acrimonious climax when a drought left reservoirs so low that the Bureau of Reclamation, acting under court order, cut off two-thirds of the water routinely delivered to farmers and sent it instead into lakes and rivers harboring endangered salmon and mullet. Waterfowl habitat on the refuges, meanwhile, did not receive much more than a tea cup. Two years later, water users remain locked in a two-sided battle--with conservationists, Indian tribes and commercial fishermen advocating that more water be left in the river system and its wetlands, and farmers trying to take more out. Last fall, NWF entered the fray when it joined a coalition of ten conservation groups that have filed a lawsuit challenging the government's policy of favoring farmers over wildlife on the Klamath refuges.

Elsewhere, water woes vary from refuge to refuge, yet they are common in nearly every region of the country. Some of the biggest threats come from mega-projects sponsored by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Stretching for 261 riverine miles through Illinois, Iowa, Wisconsin and Minnesota, the Upper Mississippi River Wildlife and Fish Refuge provides a typical example. A Corps proposal to expand six locks on the Mississippi downstream from the refuge threatens the fecund ecosystems of its mainstream river, floodplain and wetlands--critical migratory bird stopovers on the Mississippi Flyway. The refuge harbors some 300 avian species, including 40 percent of the continent's waterfowl population, as well as 100 species of fish and 40 species of freshwater mussels.

According to Upper Mississippi refuge biologist Eric Nelson, bigger locks would encourage more barge traffic and require increased channel maintenance, exacerbating adverse effects of navigation already being felt on the refuge. "We fear more erosion and siltation, which will mean the loss of island habitat crucial to protecting backwaters from wind and wave action,'' says Nelson. "This will affect everything from migrating waterfowl to fisheries."

Another Corps project to facilitate barge traffic--this one to help farmers get grain to market faster in Arkansas--portends major problems for the state's White River and Cache River refuges. Together, these refuges protect more than 200,000 acres of bottomland hardwood forest and support North America's largest population of wintering mallards, along with bald eagles, least terns and Arkansas' most important black bear population. The Corps plans to dredge or dike nearly 100 miles running through the White River preserve, which would increase siltation and erosion as well as damage rare and sensitive forested wetlands on both refuges. "It's like building a four-lane highway just to deliver the mail," complains White River refuge manager Larry Mallard. Both refuges also are threatened by a number of irrigation projects, most notably the Grand Prairie Demonstration Project, which would siphon off more than a billion gallons of water a day.

On scores of other refuges, water pollution is the biggest problem, sometimes killing vast numbers of fish and birds. Located on the state's largest inland body of water, California's Sonny Bono Salton Sea National Wildlife Refuge is perhaps the most dramatic example. Each day, the sea absorbs roughly the equivalent of a one-mile-long trainload of contaminants, including pesticides, mineral salts and fertilizers such as nitrogen and phosphorus. From the north, the effluent seeps down as agricultural runoff from farming operations in the Imperial Valley. From the south, the New River, reputedly the filthiest waterway in the United States, flows out of Mexico and dumps industrial effluent, raw sewage, slaughterhouse wastes and other toxins into this contaminated crucible. And because the sea is a sump with no outlets, expanding and contracting with cycles of inflowing water and evaporation, concentrations of pollutants only increase over time.

The effects on refuge wildlife have been disastrous. So many birds die after eating fish poisoned in the sea's chemical soup that the refuge operates two incinerators to dispose of their carcasses, as well as the thousands of fish that routinely float bellyup in the stagnant water. In the summer of 1996, one outbreak of avian botulism alone killed over 8,500 white pelicans and more than 1,125 endangered brown pelicans.

At South Carolina's Cape Romaine National Wildlife Refuge, the primary water contaminant is shrimp bait. Between 1988 and 1997, the number of shrimpers using the refuge rose from about 100 to a staggering 20,000, all of them baiting with unsterilized fish meal mixed with clay or cement, a combination that causes high nutrient levels lethal to aquatic life. A massive die-off of oysters in the refuge, for example, has triggered a sharp decline in its American oystercatcher population.

But the water news on refuges is not all bad. Deputy Chief Kurth points to an encouraging trend toward buying private land in areas prone to flooding and creating new wildlife sanctuaries there. As an example, he points to the Big Muddy National Fish and Wildlife Refuge in Missouri, which was established in 1994 along Missouri River bottomland that shelters a variety of resident and migratory birds, as well as endangered species such as piping plover, pallid sturgeon and gray bat. "With flooding and channel restoration, we're letting the river behave like a river," says Kurth.

THE GOOD AND THE UGLY: Locks and dams along the Mississippi River have damaged wildlife habitat for decades. Now their builder, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, is helping restore habitat in a portion of the Upper Mississippi refuge, which will benefit avian denizens such as ducks and bald eagles (above). Downstream from the refuge, though, the Corps has proposed a destructive lock-expansion scheme.

On some refuges, even the Corps of Engineers is playing the hero. In Arizona, for example, the Bill Williams River National Wildlife Refuge boasts one of the biggest and most diverse stretches of riparian habitat on the Lower Colorado River system. A haven for desert bighorn sheep, mule deer, javelina and mountain lions, along with more than 335 species of birds, 34 butterflies and 15 bats, this critical wildlife habitat is at the mercy of Corps officials who operate a dam 40 miles upstream. Yet so far, the Corps has provided refuge manager Dick Gilbert enough water to maintain his sanctuary's diversity. "They're excellent neighbors,'' Gilbert says.

At the threatened Upper Mississippi refuge, the Corps is participating in a major habitat restoration project--even as it proceeds with its controversial lock-and-dam expansion proposal downstream. Created in 1924, the refuge's riverine habitats were drastically altered a decade later when the Corps constructed its initial series of dams and locks, converting a free-flowing river into a series of giant pools between the dams. The changes led to loss of emergent vegetation, which in turn reduced numbers of puddle ducks such as mallards.

Two years ago, refuge managers--working both with the Corps and other federal and state agencies--experimented at one of these artificial lakes in Wisconsin, using the lock-and-dam system to lower water levels by 18 inches during the summer. The benefits to wildlife were swift and dramatic. New areas of dry land quickly sprouted vegetation, and more light penetrating shallow waters increased aquatic plants, improving habitat for both waterfowl and fish. The project turned out to be "a wonderful, innovative way to get enhanced wildlife habitat on the river," says refuge biologist Eric Nelson. "We're going to have a diversity of species we have not seen here in decades."

Virginia-based environmental journalist Michael Satchell visited Tule Lake National Wildlife Refuge to report for this story.


NWF at Work 
Protecting Refuge Waters

In addition to its work in the Klamath region, NWF is working with its affiliates to ensure adequate water supplies reach a number of refuges through its Greening the Corps campaign and other programs. In Arkansas, for example, NWF and the Arkansas Wildlife Federation have initiated a public education effort to prevent proposed federal water development plans from further harming wetlands in the White River and Cache River refuges, where U.S. Army Corps of Engineers projects have already damaged key areas. The two groups are also conducting workshops to show farmers alternative land-use practices. To help protect the Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife and Fish Refuge, NWF is challenging Corps plans to expand locks on the Mississippi River and working with the agency to develop plans for habitat restoration in the Upper Mississippi and Missouri rivers. And in Texas, NWF is seeking legal protection of freshwater inflows to Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, winter home of endangered whooping cranes.

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