First Person: How Drought Along The Klamath River Impacts Migratory Birds

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Birds and other wildlife move through a wetland in the Klamath River Basin in Tulelake, Calif. (AP Photo/Nathan Howard)
Birds and other wildlife move through a wetland in the Klamath River Basin in Tulelake, Calif. (AP Photo/Nathan Howard)

Listen: The Klamath River Water Crisis And Its Lessons On Climate Change.

The Klamath River flows some 250 miles from southern Oregon to Northern California. From its headwaters at Upper Klamath Lake, east of Medford, Oregon, the river rushes through trout habitat, forested mountains, farmland and salmon nurseries as it makes its way to the Pacific Ocean.

Rather, the river usually rushes. But now, drought is desiccating almost the entire Klamath River basin, some 12,000 to 15,000 square miles. That's an area approaching the size of the entirety of Massachusetts and Connecticut combined.

And across those more than nine million acres, everyone and everything is suffering, including the birds, from thrushes to hummingbirds and flycatchers.

The diversion of water from refuges in the Klamath River basin, as well as climate change, is altering migratory patterns of bird species in the Pacific Flyway, from Alaska to Patagonia.

John Alexander is executive director of the Klamath Bird Observatory. The observatory monitoring station is at the Klamath River headwaters, on the shore of Upper Klamath Lake. Here's his story:

John Alexander: Normally, when you would come out of our field station, walk down through the woods and onto the marsh, you'd be doing it in chest waders. But this year, even in the spring, when we would normally be over waist deep in water, we're walking on dry marsh bottom. And there's no water at the station where usually water persists.

The Klamath Refuge System is a linchpin for fall migratory birds. Western populations of waterfowl, and other species of migratory birds depend on this very small area in this critical part of their journey: the fall migration.

The decisions that we're making now are putting at risk the birds that make their remarkable annual migration through this area. And this is a clear signal that the arteries of the West, our wetland ecosystems, are failing.

What can we maintain with regards to an agro-farming industry in the upper Klamath basin while also maintaining the headwaters of one of our continent's most important watersheds, a watershed that fueled cultures and fed cultures? And how do we balance those needs? What's the economic impact of giving the refuges more water?

There's always families and livelihoods that are important and that we need to be concerned about. And we need to balance them with what we need as a broader society. If we lose some of those crops in the upper Klamath basin, is it going to have an impact on our food resources in the West, or is the impact going to be economic in nature to families that make their persistence?


And they're important. They're part of our community. And is there any way we can compensate for that? Can we afford to compensate for that? On the other hand, if we're going to decide not to give the refuges the water, and there's going to be a cost to the salmon, there's going to be a cost to the other resources that the river provides to all of us, including the First Nations, can we repay that?

So we need to think about what are the ancient cultures and what are important to them? What are the current modern cultures and what are important to them? And what can we afford to change and what can we afford to piece back into a system that functions for the world, and functions for the ecosystems that sustain us all, way into the future?

In this diary ... we hear from:

John Alexander, executive director of the Klamath Bird Observatory.

We Want To Know

How is drought changing life where you live? Are there innovative solutions near you that you'd like to learn more about? Leave us a message at 617-353-0683.

This segment aired on September 2, 2021.

Tim Skoog Sound Designer and Producer, On Point
Tim Skoog is a sound designer and producer for On Point.


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Jess Yarmosky Freelance Producer, On Point
Jess Yarmosky was a freelance producer for On Point.



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