groundwater gushes from a ditch

Groundwater gushes from a ditch. Draining the Basin © Morgan Heim

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Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Draining the Basin

What happens when there isn't enough water to go around? Morgan Heim's image Draining the Basin portrays the stark reality of water scarcity. 

Morgan's image was featured in the Wetlands: The Bigger Picture Category of the fifty-eighth Wildlife Photographer of the Year Competition and was Highly Commended by the judges.

Captured in the Klamath Basin on the California-Oregon border, the image focuses on the impact years of drought has had on the region. Melting snow from nearby mountains provides much of the basin's water, but with warmer conditions drastically reducing snowfall, there's now not enough water to go around.

Taken at Tule Lake, California, in May 2021, Morgan's photo captures some of the only rain that fell during that summer's wet season. In the shot, water is actively being pumped from a well fed by an underground aquifer - a body of rock or sediment that holds groundwater. 'The water in this image is supplying farmland that grows mostly potatoes, alfalfa and grains,' Morgan explains, 'the canal you see in this photo is part of a system that threads through many different plots'.

Spotting the ditch in the midst of the wetlands gushing with water, Morgan fought against the fading light to capture the image. 'The biggest challenge really was just making use of rapidly changing light as it was getting dark,' she recalls. 'I didn't have time to run back for a tripod, so had to really brace myself to get a steady shot.'

A view of the mountains behind the Basin

© Morgan Heim. The mountainous geology of the Klamath Basin means that water can't be carried over. 

In the background storm clouds brewed, reflecting the tension between the basin's residents, which had been rising with the dropping water levels. Morgan recalls, 'standing next to that water pump, looking at the storm, both literal and metaphorical, in the distance, I felt the conditions exquisitely illustrated the complexity of the dilemma in this moment'.

The water in the basin is essential to the survival of the people, birds and fish that live there. Farmers need the water to irrigate their lands, while the Klamath Tribes need it to prevent the extinction of two culturally important suckerfish fish species. Not only this but with the basin being on the Pacific Flyway - a major north-south migratory route in the Americas - it's a vital rest stop for migrating birds. If that wasn't enough, it's also a salmon breeding spot, though with the recent lack of water their numbers are dwindling.

The drought has caused tension between farmers who've worked the fields for generations and the indigenous Klamath Tribes who want to protect the C'waam and Koptu. They believe these two suckerfish species are sacred and have relied upon them as a source of food for survival. The C'waam and Koptu are only found in the basin, and despite being protected, their numbers are declining. Both parties have been promised water by the Government, but there just isn't enough for everyone.

A storm brews over the Klamath Basin

© Morgan Heim. A storm brews over the basin

Rationing water

While states such as California have chosen to increase water storage in wet years in the hope of surviving droughts, the geology of the Klamath Basin means that water can't be carried over in this way.

In 2021, when Morgan's photo was taken, the Federal Government chose to protect the Coho and Chinook salmon that travel along the Klamath River to spawn. But choosing to protect the salmon had negative consequences for the basin's farmers. Without enough water to support both the salmon and the farmers, the Government made the choice to cut off the water supply to 180,000 acres of agricultural land.

Typically it would take 97.8 billion gallons of water to sustain 180,000 acres of crops. With their wells dry, the farmers had to instead make use of any available groundwater. But with 1,200 farms in the basin, growing everything from potatoes to peppermint, there just wasn't enough water to grow enough to keep these farms profitable. Faced with a loss of a livelihood that in many cases had been in the family for generations, some farmers rebelled against the Government's decision, forcing open canal gates to release water into their fields.

A bird rests on foliage

© Morgan Heim. The Klamath Basin provides a lifeline for birds using the Pacific Flyway.

Disease, pollution and extinction

This rationing of water has had a knock-on effect on the local wildlife too. The basin was once the largest area of wetland west of the Mississippi River, but is now confined to just six National Wildlife Refuges. Historically these areas have offered a temporary home to millions of migrating birds, and, despite being significantly smaller than they were pre-development, they remain a crucial water source for 80% of the waterfowl that travel the Pacific Flyway.

Starting in Alaska at the top of North America and ending in Patagonia at the bottom of South America, the Pacific Flyway is a 4,000-mile-long north to south migratory route that birds travel each spring and autumn to breed, find food or escape the cold weather. With such a long journey to complete, these refuges are a vital rest stop for the birds, however, in 2021 the Tule Lake National Wildlife Refuge almost completely dried up. In 2021 the lake was drained to stop the spread of avian botulism - a disease that is fatal for birds. Since then, drought and water policy has prevented the lake from refilling.

But it's not just the quantity of water that's proving to be an issue, the quality is also a concern. Cattle ranchers with land along the streams that flow into the Upper Klamath Lake sometimes allow their cows to wade in the water. This pollutes the water with phosphorus and other nutrients that cause toxic algae to bloom in the lake. As water levels fall during periods of drought, pollution levels rise, putting the endangered C'waam and Koptu that live in the lake even more at risk. These fish haven't had a successful reproductive year since the 1990s because despite females producing hundreds of larvae every spring, most young fish die by October. While adults are able to process some phosphorus, the toxic algae in the lake often proves to be fatal for the juveniles. 

 A bird stands in the wetlands

© Morgan Heim. 80% of birds using the Pacific Flyway use the Klamath River as a water source.

A possible solution?

Currently two dams located on either side of Reservoir Reach on the Klamath River are blocking fish from travelling upstream. Removing just one of these dams would enable species such as salmon, trout and suckerfish to access more than 650 kilometres of habitat and improve water quality.

However, not everyone supports this solution. Some political parties believe that removing one or both of the dams won't improve conditions for salmon, while residents fear it could cause flooding and sediment damage that would decrease the price of their houses. Despite this opposition, the plan is going ahead, and the Iron Gate Dam is due to be removed in 2024.

Creating more habitats for fish, however, won't solve the ongoing problems caused by drought. Rivers and the communities that live along their banks are intrinsically linked. With not enough water to go around and no way to increase the water supply, there's no easy solution. Morgan's image perfectly captures this!

An underwater photo of two whales mating just below the surface of the ocean

© Morgan Heim. The basin was once the largest area of wetland west of the Mississippi River.

She reflects, 'I really like it when images aren't perfectly straightforward. Life is messy and complicated and horrible and beautiful at the same time.' She hopes her image will make viewers consider the impact of drought on communities and wildlife and about 'our consumption of resources in all forms'.

'We so often pull aggressively from one system in order to feed another,' remarks Morgan, 'and it can look really contradictory! You have this heavily used and parched land, and then this gush of water coming from deep underground, but that water comes from somewhere and leaves those other places dry. I think people are always looking for ways to pull more from the system, and we can't keep doing that.'

'It's a catch-22 situation,' she reflects 'because these farmers are supplying food and feed that the rest of us need, but nature is paying the price. I definitely don't want to demonise farmers. There are farmers in the Klamath Basin who are actively trying to conserve water, but I do want us to feel more urgent about it. Things in the Klamath are quickly approaching a tipping point. We need to make it more of a priority to conserve water and protect the ecosystems that actively function together to maintain long-term water supplies.'

The future of the Klamath Basin is an uncertain one, with communities there scrambling to protect their livelihoods, homes, cultures and wildlife from the perils of drought. But the threat of water scarcity is not unique to the basin. Wetlands around the world are vulnerable to changes in water supply caused by rising global temperatures and changes in weather patterns. With more intense droughts on the horizon, water policy and our approach to water use has never been more important.