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Walking Wetlands

posted on June 26, 2009


Like many things, water has a way of drawing lines in the dirt both figuratively and literally.

Out west, the third year of a devastating drought has farmers in northern California begging for relief. Studies show 35,000 jobs and $830 million in revenue have been lost. Suggestions for solving the problem please no one. Farmers want Endangered Species Act regulations loosened to pump more water, Governor Schwarzenegger wants more surface storage constructed and environmental groups want everything left alone.

Agricultural interests often find themselves at odds with other groups over water rights -- -- especially in the West. Nowhere has the issue been more controversial than in the Klamath River Basin that runs from Southern Oregon into Northern California. But a unique crop rotation system is helping farmers and environmentalists find common ground. Andrew Batt explains.

 

To say that wetlands historically have been underappreciated would be an understatement. Farmers and ranchers have long thought of bogs, marshes and swamps as wasted land. And, that belief has led to the draining of more than 100 million acres, or over 50% of America's wetlands. Recently, there has been a growing awareness that there is value in wetlands for their ability to filter pollutants, reduce erosion and prevent flooding. However, changing perceptions can be a challenge.

Ron Cole, Refuge Manager / Klamath Basin National Wildlife Refuges: "I had one of the farmers tell me that, you know, someday Ron you're going to want potatoes on your National Wildlife Refuge. And I, I said you know that that's interesting um I'm not sure about that…"

Ron Cole manages the Klamath Basin National Wildlife Refuges. He also serves as the project leader for Walking Wetlands, a unique crop rotation program that marries agricultural land with wetlands.

Ron Cole, Refuge Manager / Klamath Basin National Wildlife Refuges: "And I told them I'm not sure about wanting to put potatoes on it but I know someday you're going to want a wetland on your farm. And there was a chuckle and that same individual is now a big proponent of putting wetlands on farm ground and has one on his own farm today and is very proud of it because it's working for his operation.

In the battle over water rights and land use in California and Oregon, the Klamath Water Basin has long been the "Tip of the spear." In 2001, agriculture in the basin was pitted against endangered suckerfish and salmon interests, when the federal government denied farmers access to water needed to irrigate fields. 20,000 people gathered in Klamath Falls to protest the decision. The demonstrators formed a bucket brigade, took water from Klamath Lake and dumped it into an irrigation canal. The gesture was symbolic but it drew national attention to the century-old dispute of how water is used in the basin.

Prior to the 1900's, the Klamath Basin was made up of over 180,000 acres of shallow lakes and wetlands, making it one the largest and most important feeding and breeding grounds for waterfowl that migrate along the Pacific Flyway. Despite the ecosystems intrinsic value, the federal government in 1905 initiated the Klamath Reclamation Project. The goal of the project was to drain wetlands and build canals for irrigation beneath the Lower Klamath and Tule Lake in order to create farmland and encourage homesteading. Three years later, President Theodore Roosevelt recognized the importance of the wetlands and created the nations first waterfowl refuge on the Lower Klamath. Since then, the basin has become a patchwork of reclamation and preservation projects, which have resulted in numerous court battles between agriculturalists and preservationists.

Dave Mauser, Wildlife Biologist / Klamath Basin Wildlife Refuge: "Fighting each other about water, about pesticides, about a host of issues and while you're in those battles and your lawyers are talking to their lawyers you're not negotiating, you're not talking about things that you mutually agree upon."

Dave Mauser is a Wildlife Biologist at the Klamath Basin Wildlife Refuges. Since the refuges contain land leased for farming, Mauser along with Refuges Manager Ron Cole developed the idea of draining wetlands to create farmland, and flooding farmland to create wetlands. They felt Walking Wetlands could benefit both farming and wildlife and be the common ground on which both preservationist and agriculturalist could stand. So far the benefits have been greater than anticipated.

Marshall Staunton, Tulelake Farmer: "And we had the university come out and do a replicated yield trial in three different spots and we hit the incredible 35 ton yield in one spot, 30 ton yield in another. Typical yield was 25 ton or 500 sacks we call it. And so potatoes, and so we here we had this great big potato crop and a great big grain crop in the two years after wetland…"

Marshall Staunton's family was the first in the basin to take part in the Walking Wetland program. What they found was not only a 25 percent increase yields, but also a decrease in their use of fertilizer and pesticides.

Prior to the Walking Wetlands program, growing potatoes in the basin without fumigating for nematodes was impossible. But, Staunton found that a former wetland can be farmed without inputs for a few years, and that has allowed him to produce a portion of his crops organically.

Marshall Staunton, Tulelake Farmer: "But, if you aren't into organic and you want to go conventional you've got those cost saving and yield."

With yields up as much as 25%, a reduction in input costs and the ability to command a higher price by marketing organic produce, the cost of leasing land coming out of a wetland rotation is 75-100% higher than other land in the refuge. The benefits realized in the Walking Wetlands program have farmers like Rob Crawford preparing their private lands for wetland rotations. A year ago, this is where Crawford planted his crops. Today the same land is underwater.

Rob Crawford, Tulelake Farmer: "That's the amazing thing to stand here today and to realize it was red wheat, a spring red wheat crop last year and that this spring was the first application of water and just to watch that quick realization of benefit for the wildlife."

Crawford worked with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to build the levees that surround his field. In return for taking his own land out of production, the government allows him to farm within the refuge. And for Crawford that's a win-win situation.

Rob Crawford, Tulelake Basin Farmer: "People need to get back to the, to understand the value of fertile land and at the same time if you can do something that is beneficial for wildlife and still make your lands more fertile, and economically justify what you're doing… That's a good strategy."

In addition to it's agricultural benefits, the Walking Wetland program has had a huge impact on refuges within the basin. While less than 25 percent of the Klamath's historic wetlands exist today, the Walking Wetlands program has added nearly 4,000 acres of additional wetlands. That in turn, has prompted a 50-75% increase in waterfowl. Because farmers are using less fertilizer and pesticides, water quality has improved benefiting wildlife not only within the basin but downstream as well. And, there is also the benefit of increased revenues from farmers who are willing to pay more for land leased within the refuge.

Ron Cole, Refuge Manager / Klamath Basin National Wildlife Refuges: "You know we call it walking wetlands and they were taking some tiny steps to start with but the legs are getting pretty strong and they're moving pretty fast now and I love it. I like where it's going. I like the stride it's taking."

For "Market to Market" I'm Andrew Batt.

 


Tags: agriculture California Energy/Environment farmers news Oregon organic water wetlands