Ruling provides water for Stillwater Wildlife Refuge
FALLON, Nev. (AP) – Drought, politics and competition for water rights will keep many of the Pacific Flyway’s marshes dry this fall, but Stillwater Wildlife Refuge will be teeming with waterfowl.
In July, U.S. District Court Judge Lloyd George upheld a decision by the state engineer granting federal wildlife managers use of an additional 2,600 acre-feet of water at the wetland. That water will flow to more than 2,000 acres, assuring a hunting season in an area that was closed down last fall due to lack of water.
”When we flood this fall, the refuge will be packed with birds. We’ll put out the groceries, set the table, and they will come,” said Kim D. Hanson, refuge manager for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
”Now we are in much better shape than last year.”
Other marshes along the Pacific Flyway – the migration route used by migratory waterfowl in the spring and fall – aren’t faring as well.
In Nevada, Carson Lake is expected to have 7,000 to 8,000 wetland acres by fall, but most of the other wildlife management areas are quickly drying out, according to the Nevada Division of Wildlife.
Management areas at Mason Valley, Toulon, Washoe Lake, Ruby Lake and Overton will have 30 percent to 50 percent less water than last year, officials predict. The Kirch and Key Pittman management areas will have about the same water levels as last year.
Farther west, farmers, Indians and wildlife managers are wrestling over limited water rights affecting the Klamath Basin wetlands on the Oregon-California line. That basin, considered a ”staging area” for 20 million ducks and geese which use the flyway, is starving for water, according to the wildlife service.
Other marshes and wildlife refuges in California are also wilting in the drought. That means such game birds as ducks and geese and non-game birds such as swans and sandhill cranes will have to hunt for wetlands. In Nevada, the search may take them to Stillwater.
”You get ducks flying over at 300 feet or so and they look down and they see that glint of water and they come right down,” said William G. Henry, wildlife biologist at Stillwater.
Water means food. At Stillwater, the ditches and lake beds are yellow with salt grass and green with alkali weed. But when the floodgates are opened in October, the water will sweep the seeds to the wetlands and provide a bounty for the birds.
”That green alkali weed is high-protein duck food,” Henry said.
Even before irrigation projects diverted water from Stillwater Marsh, the area has been subject to natural cycles of drought and flood, feast and famine, wildlife managers said.
”It’s a boom and bust cycle,” Hanson said. ”It always has been.”
The fluctuations between desert and marsh now depend on politics as well as nature. Wildlife managers have been buying Fallon-area irrigation water as part of a 1990 federal water settlement that authorized 25,000 acres of wetlands in the Lahontan Valley.
But the city of Fallon and Churchill County have opposed the water rights purchases on the grounds that drying up farm fields will harm underground water supplies by not allowing them to recharge from surface water.
Each water purchase – like the 2,600 acre-feet recently freed up by the federal court – faces legal challenges and delays. At Stillwater, the wildlife mangers adjust their planning from year-to-year as nature and politics dictate water supplies.
At the same time, Stillwater officials use federal highway funds to improve roads and make plans for visitors’ centers, educational facilities and wildlife viewing areas.
”We’re just scratching the surface of what could be done out here,” Hanson said. ”There’s so much out here for bird watchers or just people who want to explore a place with such abundant wildlife.
”This is a resource for everybody.”
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