Beyond the Blasts: Reclaiming Wetlands in the Klamath Basin

Science in Action

Ecologists are busy monitoring water quality in Upper Klamath Lake.

See for Yourself

Watch a slideshow of restoration work to date.

The Levee Explosions

Watch the exciting blast — and progress of the wetlands since!


"We're really pleased with the way it looks and it's what we anticipated." 

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.

  • Larval fish — including the Lost River and shortnose suckers, two endangered fish species — are already being found in newly restored areas.
  • Wetland plants such as tules are emerging. Although the area was converted to farmland, historic seed banks of wetland plants were waiting. This summer, when lake levels naturally recede, more plants will begin to germinate. Today, it's hard to tell that this sun-speckled surface of blue was ever farmland. Stern — the Conservancy’s Klamath Basin conservation director — initially had a hard time getting his bearings on the preserve. Old landmarks were several feet below the surface. 
Science in full swing

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:

  • Black, slender data recorders take hourly readings on water quality. Ecologists boat out and download information directly onto palm-held computers. “Grab sampling” done at 27 sites involves taking surface water samples with a wide, clear tube fitted with plungers.
  • In the lab, water samples are analyzed for almost a dozen constituents including carbon, nitrogen and phosphorus. 
'Seeing It — Whoa'

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.


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