Bird deaths ramp up Klamath tension
Die-off raises stakes in latest push for restoration agreement
By TIM HEARDEN
TULELAKE, Calif. -- The cholera deaths of at least 3,000 migratory birds in two wildlife refuges near here have fueled the latest round of posturing over a landmark water-sharing agreement.
Biologists from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in the past week have been collecting carcasses of snow geese and other birds in the Lower Klamath and Tule Lake refuges, where as many as 10,000 birds are suspected of having succumbed to the disease.
Outbreaks of avian cholera are an annual occurrence in the Klamath Basin refuges, one of a handful of hot spots in the country, biologists say. This year's numbers are considerably higher than the fewer than 600 dead birds that biologists picked up last year but slightly less than the last large outbreak in 2008, refuge biologist John Beckstrand said.
"It's fairly common," he said of the disease. "For me it's hard to attribute it to any one thing. Generally you see it in snow geese ... They'll spread it aerially."
The dead birds represent a miniscule fraction of the roughly 6 million migratory birds that use the more than 100-year-old Klamath refuge complex as a stop-off point each year, according to U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service statistics.
However, environmental groups and supporters of the Klamath Basin Restoration Agreement have been quick to blame drought conditions for the die-off, arguing that crowding of birds for limited water has spread the disease.
Karuk Tribe Klamath coordinator Craig Tucker asserted that if the KBRA were implemented, the refuges would have the same right to water as farms and would have been assured a dry-year delivery of 48,000 acre-feet of water.
He said the refuges get inadequate deliveries in eight out of 10 years.
"In short, this week's bird kill gives Congress 10,000 more reasons to pass the Klamath Basin Economic Restoration Act," Tucker said in a statement.
All water users in the basin have been bracing for a dry year. The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation sent letters in March to more than a dozen area water districts informing them that they likely won't get their full allotments for the upcoming irrigation season.
There are currently 15,000 acres of wetlands in the refuges that are receiving water from the Ady Canal, said Kevin Moore, a bureau spokesman.
Flows to the refuges were stopped on Dec. 2 after some 10,000 acre-feet had been delivered, then as the snowpack improved, deliveries resumed on March 17, he said.
Moore noted that the refuges receive some of their water from runoff from irrigators, and since a contract with PacifiCorp expired in 2006, pumping has become much more expensive and irrigators have become much more conservative with their use.
"Since that time, Reclamation has made great efforts to supply water through Ady Canal," he said.
The latest die-off comes as Congress is debating whether to fund the 2-year-old set of agreements that would provide various fisheries improvements to the Klamath Basin and include the controversial removal of four dams from the Klamath River.
Opposing sides of the debate have latched on to several recent developments to bolster their arguments. Recently critics of the proposal seized on a former Bureau of Reclamation official's charge that the government overstated positive remarks about the project by scientists in a press release and summary report.
The posturing concerns Greg Addington, executive director of the Klamath Water Users Association.
"We're supportive of the KBRA ... but I don't really like politicizing a disaster, necessarily," he said. "I'm concerned about the anti-farm critics of the Klamath reclamation project ... who I guarantee will make this political and say we should downsize the Klamath project and make the refuges a higher priority. I'm certain that's what's going to happen because it's what those guys do."
Klamath Basin National Wildlife Refuge Complex: http://www.fws.gov/klamathbasinrefuges/
Klamath Economic Restoration Act: http://www.klamathrestoration.org/images/stories/pdfs/11-8-11_Klamath_Legislation_Draft_END11921.pdf
Klamath Hydroelectric Settlement Agreement studies and EIS/EIR: http://klamathrestoration.gov