Wetlands transformation

Kalamath Tribe wetlands
Orange netting outlines what will become a lake channel, allowing endangered fish safe passage.

ODOT partners with Klamath Tribes to turn a construction project into a wetlands restoration

An amazing transformation is taking place on a 40 acre parcel of fallow land on the shores of Klamath Lake. This land, the ancestral home of the Klamath and Modoc people, is coming back to life thanks to a partnership that includes the Klamath Tribes, the Oregon Department of Transportation and contractors.    

In 2019, ODOT’s Highway Region 4 team began acquiring an area on the southeast shore of Klamath Lake. This arid parcel of land would serve as an ideal place for crews to restore, helping offset construction impacts affecting wetlands on the other side of the lake.

 “This is part of a larger wetland restoration that will be an offset for not only Oregon 140 but future projects, too,” said Jamie Speer, project manager with Western Federal Lands, ODOT’s contractor for the construction portion of the restoration project.

In several locations around the state, we manage wetland mitigation banks, where we make “deposits” of restored habitat land from which we can make “withdrawals” when our projects impact or disturb wetland areas. This project will be a deposit.

Working together for good

The Klamath Tribes quickly realized this wetlands project could possibly serve as prime habitat for two endangered species of sucker fish reared in hatcheries and needing a home: the shortnose sucker and the Lost River sucker. Working together, everyone agreed that this re-made wetland full of marshes, ponds and lake channels would be the perfect new sanctuary for these fish – ones that have been nearly eradicated from Klamath Lake.

C'waam ceremony
A Klamath Tribes member holds the celebrated sucker fish (C’waam) during a ceremony.

According to Dr. Alex Gonyaw, Senior Fisheries biologist for the Klamath Tribes, these fish are extremely important to tribal members.

For thousands of years, the Klamath Tribes considered both species of sucker a key food source, Gonyaw said.

“When winters were tough and seemed to never end, the Tribes could count on seeing the plentiful return of the fish up the rivers each spring,” he said. They knew then that the struggle of winter was ending.

As time progressed and settlers began moving into the area, farmers turned wetlands into cattle fields. Habitat loss and poor water quality made life challenging for young fish, and the return of this valuable food source to the rivers dwindled. By 1988, both species of suckers were listed by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service as endangered species.

A hopeful future

The Klamath Tribes have been raising these endangered sucker fish in their hatchery on the Sprague River. When the water levels rise next spring, staff will stock the new ponds with around 500 suckers as a test to see how they survive. The U.S. Geological Survey is providing tracking beacons for the fish, so their movements in and out of the wetlands can be monitored.

ODOT Environmental Program Coordinator Allison Cowie said the project will help young fish survival rates and make it easier for them to make their way into the deeper parts of the lake.

“I feel very encouraged to work with the Klamath Tribes and try something new that hasn’t been done yet to help these fish,” she said. “I feel really good about this project.”

Today, the Klamath Tribes hold an annual ceremony called “Return of the C’waam” (the Klamath language word for the Lost River sucker), where they gather to pray for the plentiful return of this sacred fish. With a little bit of help, the future will bring a larger return of these important fish.

Western Federal Lands plans to have the wetland restoration construction completed by September of this year, while planting and stocking of fish will continue throughout 2022.