The cracks in the dry lakebed are wide enough to slip your hand inside. A reminder that this vast, flat, moonlike landscape was once wet, and covered in life.
In too many ways, the story of Tule Lake, in the far northeast corner of Siskiyou County, is the story of loss. Farmers in the area are idling croplands. Workers are moving on to other jobs in other parts of California and southern Oregon. And this once wet area serving as a stop-over for millions of birds on the Pacific Flyway is a far lonelier land.
“As wetlands have declined, you lose that nesting component. You lose that breeding area for all of these water birds. And then, you start to lose that tradition of birds coming,” said John Vradenburg, a biologist with the US Fish and Wildlife Service, having deep familiarity with the Tule Lake National Wildlife Refuge.
“You just start to get an overall decline in waterbird species and waterbird abundance. And that’s what we’ve been seeing. It’s been happening slowly. But in the past 10 years it’s really become an exponential change,” he added.
Tule Lake, and its community of Tulelake, are part of a larger story of Western drought. The region is headed into a third year of water rationing, and the many changes and hard decisions — big and small — that must be undertaken. The lack of water means less water for crops and less for the natural systems that have depended on this area for even longer.
“We are in the worst drought in over 1,000 years. And I don’t even know if drought is the right word. I think this is the new climate reality,” said Craig Tucker, a natural resources policy consultant for the Karuk Tribe.
“So now, we’re having a very difficult time adjusting to this new climate reality. Because everyone presumed that the climate in the 20th century would just persist forever. And that’s not what’s happening,” Tucker continued.
The Tulelake region has recorded about 10.3 inches of rain this year, which is about 77% of average, according to California Water Watch, a state agency monitoring and analyzing precipitation across California. Farther to the west, the Shasta Watershed, which includes Yreka, has received 14.8 inches of precipitation, 64% of average, according to the state water data.
Water allocations for both Tulelake and the western part of Siskiyou County come from the Upper Klamath Lake in Oregon through a network of canals and dams known as the Klamath Water Project, managed by the US Bureau of Reclamation. The project delivers irrigation water to some 230,000 acres of farm and ranch land in southern Oregon and northern California. The project is also charged with maintaining species habitation in the Klamath River, namely in the form of ensuring enough water flows for fish habitats.
This year, farmers were allocated 62,000 acre-feet of water, according to the April 29 “drought plan” issued by the Bureau of Reclamation, which is only 18% of the project’s maximum allocations. And in terms of priorities, Tule Lake is generally the last area to see water — when it’s available.
“There’s a big tug-of-war on the Klamath (River) over water,” said Tucker, underscoring the dynamic at the heart of the crisis.
“And then kind of last in line are the poor birds in the national wildlife refuges,” said Tucker. “So what’s happened in the last few years is the birds have really taken it in the shorts.”
Tule Lake has seen its hydrology ebb and flow over the years, functioning as an expanding and receding wetland, capable of maintaining a rich mix of wildlife, largely in the form of migrating birds and other water fowl.
The 1950s seemed to mark a high point for birdlife, said Vradenburg, the biologist. Peak fall migration included some 4.5 million to 6 million ducks in the refuge area. By 2020, the number of ducks had dropped to less than 2% of the 1950s numbers.
“And if we look back to the population we were seeing in the 1970s, it was right around 4%,” said Vradenburg. “So, there’s been some really significant declines.”
Prior to the current drought, the refuge reported about 6,000 pairs of ibises, said Vradenburg, adding, “we just don’t have the habitat to support those birds anymore.”
This same trend of loss can be seen in the region’s agriculture economy. Water cutbacks are forcing farmers to idle fields and reduce herd sizes to adjust for today’s drought challenges.
Ryan Finney, general manager for sales at Cal-Ore Produce in Tulelake, works with a small handful of farmers growing several varieties of potatoes. The number of potatoes farmed has been dropping since Finney arrived at Cal-Ore Produce in 2020.
“Obviously, they’re decreasing overall acreage,” Finney said of the farmers he interacts with. “You drive around through the basin here, and you see more fields that are just idle, that shouldn’t be.”
“They’re definitely decreasing across the board, and potatoes are no different,” he added, of crop reductions. “The wheat is definitely taking the biggest hit, but they’re still growing.”
And then there’s dry Tule Lake.
“And I think one of the saddest things that I can speak to… and you get to the lake and it’s just empty,” said Finney of the looming natural disaster that has become Tule Lake. “And it sucks. All the wildlife that should be there that’s not. It’s pretty sad.”
Some 60,000 acres in the Tule Lake and Klamath basin have been left idle and unplanted, due in large part to a lack of water this year, said Henry A. Ebinger, mayor of Tulelake.
The scaling back has ripple effects, he added, counting off suffering farm workers, and local merchants who over the decades came to depend on a thriving ag economy.
“When the government steps in with some help, that’s all wonderful,” said Ebinger, recalling federal aid made available to farms forced to idle fields. “That’s great. But that help doesn’t go to the local community, or the farm-workers, or workers in other businesses that might be laid off.
“So we really take the hit,” said Ebinger. “When you’re losing your tax-base because people are moving out of town, they’re not shopping locally or anything, that hurts us pretty bad.”
The population of Tulelake stands at 902, according to the 2020 Census, down from 1,020 in 2000. The median household income is $32,000.
To be sure, the drought is affecting lives and livelihoods in Tulelake. But residents and others point to efforts at resiliency and adaptation in a changing landscape, shaped by a changing climate.
Farmers have been resilient, said Finney, and have found ways to deal with the drought, in most cases through better water management, mechanization and other means.
“They are incredibly resilient, and are making it work very well for a not great situation,” he added. “There were times last year when multiple people said, ‘Well, this field’s going die. And I’m not going to be able to let this one grow.’ But most of them did not have to drop any because they found ways to get it done.”
Tucker, from Karuk Tribe, said the moment calls for new plans designed to better live with drought and changing climate.
“I think we are being forced to where everyone gets less (water),” said Tucker.
And during some years, “there will be enough water to go around,” he added. “But we have to have a plan for the drought years. And that’s what we’re missing, is we don’t have a great plan for the dry years.”
Vradenburg, the biologist, “sees the glass half-full.” He said he recalled the Lower Klamath Lake has been dry before, calling to mid the 1920s and ’30s.
“But it came back,” said Vradenburg. “And you have to hope that hydrology and climate, and policy, and all of those things align. And you start to get some of these critical landscapes back.”
Mayor Ebinger believes more could be accomplished through cooperation and collaboration.
“It’ll never be like it was,” Ebinger mused.
“It’s gotta come together where people say, look, let’s find something that works for everyone,” he added. “It’s not going to be perfect for anyone. But let’s find a way that we can co-exist.”
Skip Descant is a freelance journalist. He’s written for newspapers in California, Arkansas, Mississippi and Louisiana. He lives in downtown Yreka.