Phase 1 of the Barnes-Agency wetland restoration project underway

Ducks Unlimited is playing a significant role in overseeing the project

Phase 1 of the Barnes-Agency wetland restoration project underway

Phase 1 of the Barnes-Agency restoration project is currently underway, led by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, with assistance and technical support from Ducks Unlimited, whose mission is to carefully examine and select projects based on whether the science shows they’ll benefit waterfowl or, in this case, waterfowl and fish.

BCI Contracting, Inc., out of Oregon, was hired for Phase 1, which includes 14,000 acres of restoration work covering three wetlands. The three phases of restoration are slated to be completed in the 2025 summer season. Phase 1 costs are estimated at $10 million, with Phases 2 and 3 cost estimates at $10-$12 million, with funds provided by the U.S. Department of the Interior.

Ducks Unlimited Intermountain West Regional Biologist Amelia Raquel stated that the organization is primarily responsible for developing engineering designs, securing necessary environmental compliance documents, and ultimately hiring a subcontractor to complete construction work on the restoration project.

Raquel discussed with the Klamath Tribes News the role of Duck’s Unlimited in the Barnes-Agency project, stating that the primary emphasis is to restore hydrologic connectivity between the project site and Agency Lake and Upper Klamath Lake. It’s important to restore wetland habitats for waterfowl and other wildlife, she noted, emphasizing the ecosystem’s interconnectedness, noting that healthy fish populations are crucial for the well-being of bird populations and the impact of fish populations on the overall health of the ecosystem. Two fish species of primary interest are the endangered c’waam and koptu suckers, a traditional first food of the Klamath Tribes. 

“Phase 1 is focused on the Barnes and Agency Lake units on Upper Klamath National Wildlife Refuge proper,” Raquel said. “And then Phases 2 and 3 include the lands north of there. So, Phase 2 is focused on the Eisenberg tract, which recently transferred to U.S Fish and Wildlife Service and is part of the refuge, and Phase 3 is focused on the adjacent private lands.”

At the start of spring, BCI began removing barbed wire fencing at the construction site, which is about two miles from the Wood River Refuge parking lot. The site would be inundated after the exterior breaches are created, she said, so some internal breaches along interior levees have already been completed, and further breaching will begin in the fall.

Lightweight track trucks removing fence from Barnes unit on soft ground. (Photo courtesy of Brian Marker, Ducks Unlimited Regional Engineer)

“There’s an existing east-west levee that runs across the site,” Raquel said, “so they’re going to be adding more dirt to raise that up. When the site is breached, those will be able to kind of mitigate wind and waves across the site. And there will be some interior breaches within those eventually, and then this fall, they’ll be breaching the site of the lake (Upper Klamath Lake).”

Historically these lands were leveed off from Upper Klamath Lake and then drained for use in agricultural production. “There will be breaches in the interior levees to allow recreational access and ensure that water can the unit is when the lake is receding,” she said. “But then this fall, the major reconnecting aspect of this project will connect these units to Upper Klamath Lake through small breaches in the exterior levee.”

Raquel explained that Agency Lake is connected to Upper Klamath Lake, but the Barnes-Agency units are not hydrologically connected by surface water. Therefore, by breaching the existing levees, the two units can connect to Upper Klamath Lake. Agency Lake itself is separate from the two Barnes-Agency units currently being worked on, which are within the refuge and adjacent to Agency Lake.   

“This will restore hydrologic connectivity between the lakes and this area,” Raquel said. “And due to the fluctuations within the lake, they’ll create this transition zone of different kinds of wetland plants throughout the year as the lake recedes and then re-inundates the area.”

The bulk of the work in Phase 1 encompasses around 9,000 acres. When the project is completed, there will be some open water, submerged aquatic vegetation, and other emergent wetland vegetation.

Migratory birds already have access to the area and use it heavily, Raquel explained, but by reconnecting the refuge area to Agency Lake, the additional habitat will create an environment that hopefully will benefit c’waam and koptu suckers.

Raquel said this is the largest wetland project she has been involved in and one that provides a multitude of beneficial solutions in enhancing the wetland ecosystem, not only for waterfowl but for the c’waam and koptu, and for water quality improvement. “I think it’s one of those projects that is actually done at a scale where I think it can have a measurable difference,” she said.

Various entities made the project possible, including the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which owns approximately 12,000 acres, and private landowners who made the remaining adjacent land accessible to flooding.     

Raquel said Ducks Unlimited became involved in the project several years ago and did so enthusiastically. “We jumped at the opportunity to be a part of it – to be a part of a wetland restoration at a scale with all these multi-beneficial solutions,” she said. “And we have a strong partnership with the Fish and Wildlife Service. So, it was a great opportunity.”

When completed, the Barnes-Agency units will be transformed into a wetland that once existed before the settlement of the area, providing a diverse aquatic ecosystem that the Klamath Tribes relied on for first foods like wocus, suckers, and ducks.  

“I think this will create a great mosaic of wetland habitat types,” Raquel said. “There will deeper water areas that transition more emergent wetland habitat. It will support a lot more diving duck species and waterbirds that require those kind of deeper water habitats, and then will transition out to more seasonally flooded wetlands that’ll be important for migratory waterfowl. The most common ones you’ll see are the northern pintail, mallards, wigeons, and gadwalls.”

After completing the project, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will monitor water quality in the newly created wetland, conduct aerial surveys of waterfowl on the site, and PIT tag c’waam and koptu suckers to track their numbers and locations.

Raquel said she’s optimistic that the success of the Barnes-Agency restoration project will lead to other such projects in the Basin. “I’m really interested in more opportunities like this with various stakeholders,” she said, “and I really look forward to multi-beneficial wetland-based solutions for the basin.”