(Long) The ecosystem of the Klamath Basin

Daniel B. Wheeler dwheeler at ipns.com
Wed Aug 29 22:52:30 EST 2001

>From The Oregonian, Aug. 29, 2001, p B7

The ecosystem of the Klamath Basin

Graphic by STEVE COWDEN, text by MICHAEL MILSTEIN, The Oregonian

	The Klamath Basin cradles more than one crisis. This summer brought
hard times for farmers who depend on water from the basin's intricate
irrigation ssytem, largely shut off this year to preserve water for
protected fish.
	But scientists say the Klamath ecosystem also is beset by an
ecological crisis that prompted protection for those fish under the
federal Endangered Species Act. It's a problem visible only through a
close look at an ecosystem that no longer operates as it once did,
researchers say, because it has been frayed by decades of changes.

Changes in the Klamath landscape
	Water beings its trip through the Kalamth Basin when if falls as snow
and rain high in the Cascade Range around Crater Lake. It flows
downhill, across a landscape changed through the decades by logging,
grazing, fishing, dams and water diversions. Each of those changes in
the Klamath landscape has altered the path the water takes, affecting
both its quality and quantity in different ways and ultimately
controlling the fate of the plants, animals and people that depend on
that water.

Effects on water
	1. LOGGING: Historic logging of steep slopes left less mature trees
and plants that normally would hold water on the land. That led to
more rapid runoff and erosion that eventually finds its way into
rivers and streams. Logging, thick regrowth and roads also have
affected wildlife habitat, biologists say, reducing some populations
of deer and other wildlife hunted by Native Americans and local
	2. DAMS AND DIVERSIONS: Farms, ranchers, tribes, Crater Lake National
Park and many others have laid claim to Klamath water. Together, they
claim far more water than exists even during the wettest years. Much
of that water is diverted from rivers, streams and lakes by dams,
diversions and canals that can block fish migrations or suck fish into
irrigation canals. Because the state has not legally divided up water
rights in the basin, it's unclear which parties are entitled to what
	3. FARMING: More than $200 million worth of crops grow in the Klamath
Basin during a typical year, consuming millions of gallons of water
that is frequently used over and over as it flows from one field to
the next. Much of that water ends up in national wildlife refuges that
rely on farm runoff for water, then is funneled back into the Klamath
River, often laden with decaying algae and other pollutants.
	4. WETLANDS: Hundreds of thousands of acres of marshes once blanketed
the Klamath Basin, storing vast amount sof wate rin their soggy soil
and filtering the water along the way. About 80 percent of those
wetlands are now gone, drained for farming and other development,
leaving water to flow directly into rivers and lakes with whatever
sediment or other materials it picks up along the way. Some restored
wetlands along the shore of Upper Klamath Lake are credited with
removing nutrients from incoming water in recent years, boosting water
	5. GRAZING: Klamath County has more than 100,000 cattle, more than
the county's human population. Many of those cattle graze along rivers
and streams in the upper basin. If left unmanaged, grazing can
accelerate erosion and remove streamside plants that otherwise would
filter water and provide shelter for fish. Waste from cattle also adds
nitrogen and phosphrous to the rivers flowing into Upper Klamath Lake,
unnaturally fertilizing the murky lake and increasing toxic algae
	6. LAKE ALGAE: Upper Klamath Lake is the largest lake in Oregon and
has always been murky and laden with algae. But increased nutrients
flowing into the shallow lake from grazing land now can fuel even
larger algae blooms during the hot, sunny midsummer days. The thick
green algae consumes oxygen from the water, leaving less for fish. It
then decays, releasing toxic ammonia compounds that can kill fish.
Such fish klls do not happen every year, and their timing is
unpredictable, depending largely on weather and other factors.

Effects on wildlife
	BIRDS: More than 80 percent of the birds that migrate up and down the
Pacific Flyway use Kalamth Basin wetlands as a rest stop or wintering
ground. The basin also is home to the largest population of wintering
bald eagles in the Lower 48 states. But the nearly 1 million waterfowl
that now traverse the basin are a fraction of the estimated 6 million
that once flocked to wetlands that a century ago covered about five
times the area they do now.
	(Graphic shows 7 million waterfowl in 1950; 2.2 million in 1998, and
1.3 million in 2000.)
	FISH: The Klamath River was once the third most productive salmon
fishery in the West. Now its population of coho salmon is threatened
because of fishing pressure, declining water quality and diversions of
water for irrigation in California and Oregon. Suckers, which dwell in
Upper Klamath and other area lakes and rivers, also have declined
since the days when they fed Native Americans and even a cannery near
Klamath Falls, although scientists have only sketchy population
	(Graphic shows 4.2 million coho salmon harvest in 1971; .3 million in
1993, and 500 in 1994.)
	DEER: In 1960, state biologists counted 21.5 deer per mile in an area
north and east of Klamath Falls. Last year they counted between four
and five per mile. Biologists and tribes say the decline is largely
due to loss of habitat to development, overgrown forests and road
construction, although other factors, such as predators, may also play
a role.
	(Graphic shows 20 deer per square mile in 1960; 5 deer in 2000.)

Sources: Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, Oregon State
University, Oregon Deparmtnet of Agriculture, National Agricultural
Statistics Service, U.S. Census Bureau, North American Flyways
Council, U.S. Geological Survey, Natural Resources Conservation
Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S. Bureau of Reclamation,
National Marine Fisheries Service, U.S. Forest Service, Klamath
Naitonal Wildlife Refuges.

Comment by poster: in the 1970's while going to college, I met a
Klamath Falls native and Native American. His tribe had just sold a
large parcel of timber, which had been distributed to the tribal
members. The trees were quite large, quite old. They stored many years
worth of annual water in their timber. They shaded large areas. They
provided animal habitat. They allowed the slow release of water back
into streams, and retained water when it was very abundant, to be
released later, through transpiration. It would be horribly ironic if
these trees, so valuable in the 1970's, were an important block of the
Klamath watershed. If so, would decisions to "harvest" have been

It's kind of ironic that northwest of K. Falls was where a large
hypogeous (underground) fungus was found several years ago. That
fungus is currently being marketed to Japanese by New Zealand, who
just recently learned how to grow it. New Zealand is currently seeing
$800/kg for the fungus. How valuable to the Klamath watershed would a
stand of White or Whitebark pine (or Ponderosa, Knobcone, etc)
inoculated with this fungus? Maybe someone in the future will have the

Posted as a courtesy by
Daniel B. Wheeler

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