19 June 2021

A water-dependent conservation effort in a year without water

Written by: Courtney Randik

Surveying for Western Pond Turtles along the Klamath River in Northern California as part of a species status assessment under the Endangered Species Act sounds like a dream field project. While kayaking down the river all summer equipped with an inflatable kayak, an iPad, and a pair of binoculars collecting data on turtle occupancy and habitat composition, the most prominent obstacles one would expect to face during the project are the apparent and abundant rapids of varying classes. The last problem one would expect on a river with swiftly flowing water? A lack of water.


The Upper Klamath Lake Reservoir in Southern Oregon caches the water supply for the entirety of the Klamath River. Water levels on the river are under government regulation and levels are controlled to provide sufficient water for farmers along the reach of the Klamath via a canal. The government must also provide “flushing flows” of quick, increased water levels in order to help prevent concentrations of a deadly parasite from accumulating and killing the native Chinook Salmon. These fish are a key cultural component to three local Native American tribes: the Yurok, the Karuk, and the Hoopa Valley. On a normal year with regular rainfall during the spring rainy season, providing enough water to farmers while conserving enough water for the salmon flushes is unproblematic. Unfortunately, recent years have not proven to be normal.

Consecutive years of decreasing rainfall have led to a drought in Upper Klamath Lake, making 2021 one of the worst drought years in this region since 2001. The canal that transports the water from the reservoir to the farmers will be completely dry for the first time in 114 years in an effort from the government to conserve what little water there is in order to protect the salmon. These circumstances have instigated political unrest in the area and threaten protests and anti-government attacks – common occurrences in historical drought years.

Navigating political turmoil and dangerously low water levels during my fellowship with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) surveying the Western Pond Turtles along the Klamath River was not an issue I anticipated having to face. As I begin my surveys upriver, the quantity of water appears normal; however, the quality of the water itself is depreciating at earlier and faster rates and deceased salmon are already ending up in USFWS traps. As the weeks progress and I work my way downstream, the low water levels will be more apparent in side channels and backwaters of the river and may even render some reaches impassible by kayak as the water level will be too shallow to allow the kayaks to flow through. Part of this project is to survey for the turtles in adjacent ponds to the Klamath River. Pond surveys have been nearly impossible as most accessible ponds are completely evaporated.

Fire risk is increased with the drought conditions and in conjunction with the rest of the circumstances, the success of this project is at the mercy of the elements and the public. With the project deadline approaching in August and many reaches left to cover, it is a fight against the clock to collect enough data to be useful for the future species status assessment of the Western Pond Turtle. I am optimistic that this project will be seen to completion with the dedication of myself, my fellow cohort, and the outstanding FWS team and its partners. We will persevere through these stacked odds against us and march forth in the effort to protect these beloved native aquatic turtles of the Klamath River basin.Klamath

Agency: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Program: US Fish & Wildlife Service - DFP

Location: Yreka Fish and Wildlife Office

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