Science in Action
Ecologists are busy monitoring water quality in Upper Klamath Lake.
The Levee Explosions
Watch the exciting blast — and progress of the wetlands since!
Mark Stern, director of the Conservancy’s Klamath Basin Conservation Area
by Jen Newlin
Nature Conservancy scientist Mark Stern decided to go swimming. That’s not far fetched for a wetlands specialist — except that this swimming hole was, until recently, a dry field.
In late 2007, the Conservancy used around 100 tons of carefully placed explosives to breach four levees — each a half-mile in length — and successfully flood about five square miles of the Conservancy's Williamson River Delta Preserve along Oregon’s Upper Klamath Lake.
The point of this unprecedented conservation strategy? To restore historic wetlands and benefit water quality, wildlife and two endangered fish species. Around 3,500 acres were flooded after the explosives. And in 2008, additional levees were breached to flood the entire 5,000 acres. It took two years to prep the site and move enough dirt (about 1.75 million cubic yards, or 175,000 dump truck loads) for a successful flood that best matched modeling for historical conditions.
The Williamson River Delta was historically a vast expanse of marsh and lake-fringe habitat. As industry began to crescendo in the early 1950s, levees were constructed and the delta was converted to farmland.
In the 1990s, stakeholders identified restoration of these wetlands as an important ecological step in the region. So the Conservancy and its partners began to acquire over 11 square miles and started work on the $10 million project — removing levees and restoring the water.
And science is in full swing, too: Conservancy scientists and partners are surveying fish population density and distributions and monitoring water quality on a daily basis. They trek into the marsh in chest-high waders and set nets for the suckers. Field-work gear for monitoring would make the gadget-savvy swoon:
Scientists have been monitoring the lake’s water quality for years, and they hope the new wetlands will make a positive change. Wetlands are natural filters (nature’s kidney, if you will). At the preserve, wetland plants are already beginning to emerge, though they’ll take several years to fully re-establish.
“We’re really pleased with the way it looks and it’s what we anticipated,” Stern says. “Intellectually, you know what it’s going to look like when it’s flooded. But seeing it — whoa. That’s a huge change. This will be wetlands as far in the future as anyone can imagine, I think.”
A special thanks to PacifiCorp for supporting ongoing recovery of endangered fish species—Lost River and shortnose suckers. And thank you to the following project partners: The Klamath Tribes, The National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, Natural Resources Conservation Service, North American Wetlands Conservation Act, Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board, U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and U.S. Geological Survey.March 08, 2012
Jen Newlin is a writer and graphic designer for The Nature Conservancy.