It’s one thing to drive back roads to get a sense of Upper Klamath Lake and, even more, the tributaries that feed it.
But it’s far more impacting to see the region’s expansive landscape from the air, as a fortunate few did Tuesday, June 6.
“It did impact me when I saw it from the air,” said Karl Wenner, a retired Klamath Falls doctor and owner of Lakeside Farms, a 400-acre-wetlands on Upper Klamath Lake’s southeastern shore, of the sights of his farm and other areas up the Upper Klamath Basin. “It’s fixable,” he said, referring to efforts to restore and expand wetlands.
Wenner is using his land and wetlands to improve water quality, raise endangered Lost River and shortnose suckers, provide habitat for migrating birds and to demonstrate how flexible land practices can benefit farmers.
Sustainable Northwest sponsored flights over the Upper Klamath Basin in a single-engine Cessna through EcoFlight, a non-profit that works with organizations to provide an aerial perspective to conservation and public lands issues. Sustainable Northwest is a Portland-based company with a goal of preserving and restoring natural resources, such as in the Klamath River Basin. Two hour-long flights were flown from the Klamath Falls Airport, but two others were canceled because of the plane’s maintenance concerns.
Dave Meurer, community affairs director for RES, which is the nation’s largest ecological restoration company and is contracted to do dam removal-related restoration projects, said the flights were intended to provide perspectives on possible solutions to water quality problems in Upper Klamath Lake. The lake is fed by the Sprague, Williamson and Wood rivers, which impact Upper Klamath Lake’s and the Klamath River’s water quality. While much of the immediate focus is on the upcoming removal of four Klamath River dams beginning later this year, he said efforts are also being made now and in the future to restore tributaries that feed into Upper Klamath Lake and, ultimately, the Klamath River.
“It does work,” Meurer said of restoration efforts, citing previous RES projects on other rivers, noting a goal of the Tuesday flights was to give participants a sense of the size and scope of the Upper Klamath Basin, which spans 5.6 million acres in Southern Oregon and far Northern California.
The upcoming dam removals, the largest dam project in U.S. history, is drawing national interest as reflected by participants in Tuesday’s flights and another series of flights planned Wednesday, June 7. Among those on the flights were representatives from The Washington Post, CBS, PBS, Jefferson Public Radio and The Guardian. Wednesday’s flights from the Medford Airport are planned along the Klamath River and the four dams slated for removal — Copco 2 this year and Copco 1, Iron Gate and John C. Boyle in 2024.
Dave Coffman, RES director for Northern and Southern Oregon, and Nell Scott, Trout Unlimited, provided commentary and information during Tuesday’s second flight, which began flying over Lakeside Farms and its newly re-created wetlands.
While flying along Upper Klamath Lake’s east side, Scott noted the lake’s average depth is only 8 feet, with the deepest sections up to 30-feet deep. Because the lake is shallow, it heats up in the summer, which contributes to green algae blooms. She noted the lake is popular with fishermen, especially for its large redband trout.
The flight continued north with views of Agency Lake, meandering Crooked Creek and the Barnes-Agency wetland restoration, one of the Klamath Basin’s largest restoration efforts. A restoration goal is to restore critical fish habitat and, according to Coffman, improve the quality of water flowing into Upper Klamath Lake.
After passing over the Wood River, the flight continued north to the Klamath Basin National Wildlife Refuge before reversing direction and flying south over sections of the Williamson and Sprague rivers. While over the Sprague, Coffman said such chemicals as phosphorus, which can adversely impact water quality, naturally occurs from volcanism, such as the explosion of Mount Mazama 7,700 years ago. He noted agricultural practices such as straightening and widening river channels increase the water flow, cause erosion and contribute to degraded water quality. The tour ended passing over the Swan Lake Valley.
Following the flight, Meurer termed the upcoming dam removals as a “first step,” emphasizing that efforts are being made to continue “conversations” among farmers, tribes, land managers and others to develop plans when making future requests for money available through federal restoration programs.
“Here’s what could be done. Here’s quantifying what the benefits would look like,” he said, noting the goal is “painting a picture for the feds so they can see what restoration would look like. There’s information galore.”
“Investment here,” Meurer said, referring to creating and funding restoration plans for the Upper Klamath Basin, “is the logical next step for restoring the Klamath (River) downstream.”