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Wetlands project on Upper Klamath Lake wins award

A contaminated, 45-acre area on the southeast shores of Upper Klamath Lake has been transformed into a wetland habitat that includes an experimental nursery for endangered juvenile suckers. [Photo by Lee Juillerat]

Transformation of a degraded, contaminated, 45-acre landscape on the southeast shores of Upper Klamath Lake into a wetland habitat was honored Tuesday by the State Land Board during the 18th annual Oregon State Land Board Awards.

Gov. Kate Brown, Treasurer Tobias Read and Secretary of State Shemia Fagan recognized the Klamath Lake Wetland Mitigation Project, which has restored wetlands, developed new channels and created a pond for reintroduction of endangered fish species.

“Exceptional collaboration brought exceptional results,” said Fagan, who presented the award to Roberta Frost, a member of the Klamath Tribal Council. “The Klamath Lake Wetland Mitigation Project addressed past and future impacts to meaningfully improve water quality and wetland habitat for the endangered fish species that are so important to the Klamath Tribes.”

The mitigation project area is west of Highway 97 near milepost 271 about 7 miles north of Klamath Falls. The impetus for the project, according to the State Land Board, stems from an upcoming Highway 140 project on the southwest side of Upper Klamath Lake that will also impact wetlands. The mitigation work being done off Highway 97 will replace wetlands and water resources that will be impacted by the Highway 140 project.

According to the nomination form, agricultural uses have replaced more than 70% of the wetlands connected to Upper Klamath Lake, the largest freshwater lake west of the Rocky Mountains, since the early 1900s. In the past 50 years, sections of the lake shore also were used as a dumping ground for discarded debris, much of it laden with asbestos and rebar.

The form notes the loss of wetlands and the addition of agricultural runoff into the lake negatively impacted the health of the entire Klamath Basin and the Lost River and shortnose suckers that depend on it. Known by the Klamath Tribes as C’waam and Koptu, young fish are particularly vulnerable to poor water quality and habitat loss. The loss is felt by the Klamath Tribes, with a creation story saying, “If C’waam go away, the people go away.”

Project partner Allison Cowie of Oregon Department of Transportation said, “All surviving suckers currently in Klamath Lake were born between 1991 and 1993. They’re facing extinction, and the survival of the juvenile fish became an intense focus of our restoration efforts.”

Cowie said a half-acre, meticulously designed sucker rearing pond, which is connected to the lake by a head-gate, is serving as an experimental nursery for the endangered juvenile suckers and is advancing the science for their potential recovery.

The Federal Highway Administration’s Western Federal Lands Highway Division initially reached out to ODOT for wetland, geology and right-of-way assistance and to the Forest Service Restoration Services Team for revegetation assistance. Cowie said ODOT then reached out to the tribes for sucker expertise. What followed was an integrative cooperation among state and federal agencies, tribal representatives, contractors and volunteers.

“This project used innovative, collaborative approaches to achieve multiple goals,” said Vicki Walker, the Department of State Lands director. “Project partners cleaned up a contaminated former mill site, improved the water quality and engineered solutions to benefit two regionally and culturally valued endangered species.”

A collaborative approach is continuing. This spring, more than 800 juvenile suckers were introduced to the pond. Tribal biologists are managing the project by assessing ongoing water quality and the health of the fish as they mature. The Restoration Services Team is installing native plants and managing weeds on an ongoing basis, and earlier this year installed mats with a diverse palette of native wetland plant species.

Cowie said ODOT is working with the Klamath Lake Land Trust to build and install floating islands to provide improved water quality and localized fish habitat. Klamath Lake Land Trust volunteers have installed birdhouses and photo stations and plan to install wildlife structures. She said the ongoing partnerships are expected to expand over time and help to ensure lasting stewardship over the long term.

The Land Board Awards honor exceptional projects and partners for “their contributions to protecting and enhancing Oregon’s treasured natural resources.”

Reach freelance writer Lee Juillerat at 337lee337@charter.net or 541-880-4139.