Tule Lake, © American West Conservation

Walking Wetlands

Kelly Catlett, California Representative

Tule Lake National Wildlife Refuge

Wetlands at Tule Lake National Wildlife Refuge (Photo ©American West Conservation)

For wildlife enthusiasts, visiting the six national wildlife refuges in the Klamath Basin is an amazing experience. Located on the Oregon-California border, the six refuges — Klamath Marsh, Upper Klamath, Bear Valley, Clear Lake, Lower Klamath, and Tule Lake — are an important stop on the Pacific Flyway providing habitat for 353 bird species as they migrate from breeding grounds in the north to wintering grounds in the south. Fall and spring bring millions of ducks, geese and swans to the area during their annual migrations, and the refuges are home to the largest winter bald eagle population in the contiguous United States.

The refuges are breathtaking, but I actually wasn’t there to view wildlife. I went to the Klamath Basin to learn about a program operated on the Tule Lake and Lower Klamath National Wildlife Refuges that could provide a model for how agriculture and wetlands can not only co-exist, but benefit one another. In the United States, nearly half of our original wetlands have been drained and converted to other uses, including agriculture. Finding a way for wetlands and agriculture to co-exist can slow the loss of wetlands and keep much-needed habitat available to a variety of wetland-dependant species, including ducks, geese, swans, and other migratory birds.

Tule Lake and Lower Klamath Refuges are unique in that their management allows commercial agriculture on the refuge. In fact, both wetland wildlife habitat and commercial agriculture are part of the refuge’s purpose. Refuge managers struggled for decades to reconcile these seemingly conflicting land uses.  Under traditional management techniques, wetland areas were flooded permanently. After several years of continuous flooding, the wetland areas became so thick with tules and other plants that wildlife stopped using them. Eventually, managers hit on the idea of rotating wetlands through the commercial farm fields on the refuges.

American White Pelican Klamath NWR

The American White Pelican is one of the many species of birds that benefit from the Walking Wetlands program (Photo ©Dan Dzurisin)

As part of an effort dubbed the “Walking Wetlands” Program, refuge managers began to experiment by flooding fields that were of such poor quality that no one wanted to farm them. Using specific water management techniques, they restored former cropland to productive wetland habitat. Then, after several years of flooding, fields were dried and returned to agricultural production. Allowing a more natural regime of flooded and dry periods produced healthier, more attractive wetlands. During this test project, the experimental walking wetlands only represented 4% of refuge lands, but they supported 30-90% of some waterbird species.

The biggest surprise came when, after several years as a wetland, the fields were drained and returned to agricultural production. Farmers in the “Walking Wetlands” program have found that after wetland cycles of one to four years, they don’t need to fumigate their soil or apply pesticides and fertilizers. Yields of certain crops even improved by 25%, and farmers discovered that the pest and disease control benefits even allow for production organically. In other words, farmers could produce more and better-quality crops with less cost and effort.

Tule Lake National Wildlife Refuge

©American West Conservation

From this initial experiment, the program has grown to include 600 to 1,200 acres of year-round and seasonally flooded wetlands. It has been so successful that neighboring landowners have even begun to incorporate wetlands into their operations on private land outside the refuge. The “Walking Wetlands” Program has demonstrated that wetlands and agriculture don’t have to be at odds. They can be integrated in a way that keeps the ecosystem healthy and supports the economies of rural communities.

We’re looking at how the same methods could be put into use to compensate for the losses of other wetlands and farms like those in California’s Yolo Bypass. This large, undeveloped, leveed expanse of land shunts water around Sacramento to relieve pressure on the city’s levees during high water periods. There are proposals to re-operate the Yolo Bypass to hold water more frequently and for longer durations, which would benefit migrating salmon, steelhead and a couple other species of fish. But the practice would also displace current waterfowl habitat, and potentially make farming inside the bypass more difficult. Learning about programs like Walking Wetlands, which can use swaths of land for both purposes, gives us a new option to bring to the table — one that could help out farmers and waterfowl alike whether applied inside or outside the bypass.

One Response to “Walking Wetlands”

  1. Chip Munkton

    Walking Wetlands have arrived in the rice gorwing region in Yolo County. Organic rice rotations allow fields to be flooded in Summer to become resplendent with an array of shorebirds which prefer the puddled shallow wetlands to the deeper water. Water quality is improved, fertilizers are minimized and pesticiedes are eliminated. Unfortunately the Natural Resource Defense Counsel NRDC has targeted rice as a water wasting crop. Laws have been passed to meter water on rice farms to discourage rice farming in California. What was thought a good idea as turned out to be bad for wildlife, water quality, environment, open space and farmland conservation. To save farmland it must be irrigated. Walking Wetlands makes sense.

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