Flooded out by silt buildup, Upper Klamath marsh changes reach far downstream
Silt buildup in the Williamson River channel just south of Military Crossing Road is blamed for damming water, flooding thousands of acres of Klamath Marsh National Wildlife Refuge and adjoining private lands.
“We were wondering where the water went – it’s all up here,” said Ed Bartel, a rancher and president of Resource Conservancy, a landowner group heavily involved in adjudication of upper basin water rights.
He figures the extra water held above the Williamson silt deposit may amount to 50,000 acre feet a year less water available downstream.
Bartel whips out a graph of annual stream flows at Kirk Reef, a Williamson River gauging station between the marsh and Chiloquin. It shows steady decline in total water output in recent years. Bartel looks across the water from Sugarpine Mountain and spots the tower of a long-abandoned windmill in the middle of what historically was seasonal pasture.
Military Crossing gets its name as a route over this vast marsh pioneered by John C. Fremont in the 1840s and later used to move U.S. Army troops and supplies. A county road follows the same route today.
History is secondary to Peachy Thomas, Walt Ford and Scott Phillips. Thomas owns a ranch that’s now flooded. Ford manages the refuge for U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and catches heat from folks who think the government is responsible for the flooding. Phillips is superintendent of Klamath County Road Department, worried about clearance beneath a bridge where the river flows “the wrong way” several months out of the year.
When Thomas moved to his 570-acre place 15 years ago, it was for the duck hunting. But he turned rancher. Much of the Thomas ranch was pastureland beside the wandering Williamson River, attractive to cattle in the summer, then becoming marshland attractive to waterfowl each fall as water levels rose across the marsh.
A USFWS maintenance worker puts the change in hydrology in 1993. That was the wet winter between two extremely dry years. Flood water took out part of the earthfill causeway of Military Crossing Road just east of the Williamson River bridge.
Ford, who arrived at the refuge years later, estimates that silt, including material blown out of the roadway, extends for perhaps a quarter- to a half-mile down the Williamson, starting not far below the bridge. The bar is high enough so that as water drains through a ditch locals call “the levee,” when it reaches the Williamson just below the bridge, it flows back upstream.
About 400 acres out of Thomas’s 570 lie above the bridge, either beneath the rising water or cut off from dryland by the spreading marsh.
Thomas plucks a dried weed from beside the bridge, dropping it in the river. The weed floats north, beneath the bridge. Forget about the map that tells you the Williamson flows south, draining this 1,290-square-mile watershed. Here it flows north, spreading water over a vast area almost as flat as a billiard table.
“The road washed out,” said Thomas. “It took out the silt down by the other bridge, and its been like that ever since.”
Phillips said two years ago the county became concerned about newer silt buildup beneath the bridge. It happens when the Williamson moves backwards, tumbling granular pumice northward.
“Once it starts moving in the right direction” the deposit shifts back downstream, below the bridge.
Phillips said he went to USFWS hoping to get cooperation in restoring the Williamson channel.
“I was told it would take a directive from the president to open that channel,” he recalls.
Ford has his own information that shows the built-up part of the channel runs through private property, not refuge ground.
Thomas said folks who come up to talk about the problem often believe there’s a flood gate somewhere.
“Everyone thinks we are controlling the water, holding onto the water,” he said. “We don’t have any control of it.”
USFWS had 16,000 acres of the lower marsh when the refuge was created from former Klamath Indian Reservation lands. Through land purchases in 1990 and 1998, it expanded the refuge to 40,000 acres. Ford said there are no active land-purchase deals at present, but if Thomas or other flooded owners are interested in selling, “we are willing to talk to them and do an appraisal.”
Bartel dismisses that as little more than the government flooding you out so they can buy you out.
Thomas looks across his now-wet pasture, recalling that last year rental for cattle over a season was $37.50 a cow-calf pair, and not a thing could go out there: “On that ground you’d have to have a water buffalo.
“I say I don’t own the water, I have a right not to have it on my property,” said Thomas.
Paying for the loss of grazing, said Thomas, would make it right.
“This is a horrible thing happening up here, and it’s bad for the people down below,” Bartel said as he climbed back in his truck for the trip home.
In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, any copyrighted work in this message is distributed under fair use without profit or payment for non-profit research and educational purposes only. [Ref. http://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/17/107.shtml]