Gaze across scenic Sandhole Lake at Camas National Wildlife Refuge as flocks of tundra and trumpeter swans wing west along the Centennial Mountains of southeast Idaho, and its easy to miss signs of
On a crisp fall day, Sandhole Lake is shimmering blue, unlike nearby Rat Farm Pond, dry for 15 years, and Spring Pond, wet only in spring. The precious water also draws pintail, geese, coot and sandhill cranes. Visitors train lenses on the birds and see the refuge fulfilling its missionset in 1937to protect and maintain waterfowl in a dry region.
This is our showme place, says refuge manager Brian Wehausen. Ive seen every species of North American waterfowl but two here.
But changes in soil hydrology and farming methods are threatening Camas Refuges identity as a highdesert oasis for waterfowl.
The water table is at an alltime low, thanks to cyclic droughts and centerpivot irrigation. Motorized pivots, like the 75plus that soak circles of farmland near the refuge, pull water efficiently from the ground.
Status Quo Untenable
Where the refuge once managed streams to keep 4,000 of its 6,000 acres under shallow water, it now can maintain only 2,000 to 3,000 wetland acres by diverting from Camas Creek and pumping groundwater. The refuge spends up to $70,000 annually on electricity for pumping, but, cost aside, the work is problematic. Motordriven pumps add to carbon emissions and deplete the shrinking Snake River Plain aquifer, one of Idahos most important freshwater sources.
Maintaining the status quo isnt possible. However, without pumping, the wetlands would dry up, leaving nesting birds with no habitat.
Camas is a refuge in transition, says Southeast Idaho Refuge Complex project leader Tracy Casselman. We have to decide what wetlands we are going to fill and how we are going to fill them.
Wehausen agrees. To keep as much wetland as possible and reduce pumping costs, he says, the refuge must: 1) determine which areas can best hold water, and 2) move wells closer to them. Moving a well is a $70,000 to $100,000 undertaking, he says, but savings in pumping costs could justify the expense.
Geographic information system (GIS) modeling to help determine where to replace wells has just begun. It will incorporate data from new soil, vegetation and topography surveys. The soil map pinpoints clay hydric soilswhich hold water longer than porous, sandy soils. The vegetation map shows former wetlands that still retain waterloving plants like rushes and cattails that provide cover, food and nesting habitat for waterfowl and waterbirds. A LIDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) map details topography. Models also will examine water flow changes from a proposed Camas Creek channel restoration.
As outlined in the refuges draft comprehensive conservation plan (CCP) being readied for public comment, the models proposed solutions will be tested over the next 15 years.
There is another option, too. It came up in CCP discussions, Wehausen recalls:
Some people were playing devils advocate, saying, If it costs $70,000 to pump water every year and the wetlands are all going away, and, politically, theres not a hell of a lot we can do about it, why dont we just make it into an upland refuge that is not dependent on wetlands?
We considered that, he says. Whats at stake is, eastern Idaho doesnt have many wetlands left. If we lose this refuge, a huge chunk of wetland is gone. Youre going to hurt swans, cranes, ducks, geese, all wildlife. As a manager, I cant give this up, not yet. I have to try to make it the best I can as a wetland refuge, knowing Im not going to get everything back.
Susan Morse is a writereditor in the Refuge System Branch of Communications.