“It wanted to be a wetland”: restoring the Everglades of the West

The largest dam removal project in US history is spurring ecosystem actions aimed at restoring the Upper Klamath Basin and thus helping to ameliorate the impacts of choices made a century ago.

A century ago, the Basin, which encompasses 5.6 million acres in Southern Oregon and Northern California, was the ‘Everglades of the West’. But 80% of its wetlands have been lost to livestock grazing and agriculture, compromising the health and resiliency of the entire ecosystem and all its inhabitants.

The Basin is a key part of the Pacific Flyway; 80% of birds migrating north from Mexico along the US west coast stop here. But their habitat shrank steadily as the federal government “reclaimed” wetlands for agriculture as part of the Klamath Project. Now, during dry years, many birds skip the Basin. 

The interconnected picture links farmers, birds and endangered fish. Wetlands used to host waterfowl and absorb nutrients before they could enter the lake. Now algae thrive on the steady influx of nutrients, endangering the C’waam and Koptu, important traditional food sources for the Klamath Tribes. As drought dries the entire basin, flooded farmlands provide food for the birds in winter but feed toxic algae blooms when pumped back into the lake. 

The Klamath Watershed Partnership and US Fish and Wildlife Service are working with landowners like retired orthopedic surgeon Karl Wenner to see if there is a way to preserve flood irrigation, which provides valuable food and habitat for migrating birds, while protecting water quality for endangered suckers. 

Klamath Watershed Partnership

Demolishing four dams along the Klamath River – the largest dam removal project in US history – will be a start to fixing the problems that have plagued one of the county’s biggest ecosystems, Wenner says. “It is a disrupted, screwed-up system – but this is fixable.”

Understanding that the Basin is fundamentally a wetland landscape is key to restoring the ecosystem’s functionality, says John Vradenburg, supervisory biologist for the Klamath Basin National Wildlife Refuge Complex. Wenner’s farm is a part of showing how that can be done.

Creating a wetland took 70 of the farm’s 400 acres out of production and needed support from the Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board, the Fish and Wildlife Service and the Natural Resources Conservation Service. 

Using heavy equipment, the barley fields were flattened so less water is needed to flood the fields in winter. Then a river-like channel and artificial islands were sculpted and water from the flooded fields was funneled into the wetland rather than the lake. The newly-created wetland captures nutrients from agricultural runoff and provides habitat for migrating birds and a new pump system gives farmers more flexibility in managing their fields. 

An existing wetland pond was deepened to support young suckers and in April 2022, US Fish and Wildlife Science scientists stocked it with more than 1,000 young C’waam and Koptu suckers, captured as larvae from the nearby Williamson River a year earlier. After a few years in the sucker rearing pond, they will be released into Upper Klamath Lake. 

The new wetland is already hosting birds. When water flowed into the new wetland for the first time, “gazillions” of ducks descended, Wenner says. “It’s good for agriculture, good for birds, good for water quality, and good for fish.” Today, as waterfowl nest among the vegetation, joining pond turtles and  native fish near rows of sprouting barley, Wenner smiles. “This place wanted to be a wetland,” he told the Guardian.

WIth their model to hand and unprecedented federal funding available though the BIden administration’s Inflation Reduction Act, Wenner and his partners are encouraging more farmers and ranchers to follow in their footsteps. “We are demonstrating it is possible,” Wenner said. “We just have to do it on a gigantic scale.”


Endangered fish and waterfowl find refuge at the Klamath Basin’s Lakeside Farms Oregon Public Broadcasting, May 16, 2022

‘This place wanted to be a wetland’: how a farmer turned his fields into a wildlife sanctuary Guardian, Oct. 22, 2023

Retired doctor turns toward conservation. The Herald and News, Aug. 5, 2020

One farm, many benefits: How ag land can be part of basin water solution. The Herald and News, Dec. 11, 2021

Assisted by AI, a workforce of bees tracks pollution and boosts biodiversity Microsoft Features, Sep. 18, 2023

Cover image: Klamath Lake Land Trust