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 it’s easy to miss signs of a problem.

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 mission—set in 1937—to protect and maintain waterfowl in a dry region.

“This is our ‘show–me’ place,” says refuge manager Brian Wehausen. “I’ve seen every species of North American waterfowl but two here.”

But changes in soil hydrology and farming methods are threatening Camas Refuge’s identity as a high–desert oasis for waterfowl.

The water table is at an all–time low, thanks to cyclic droughts and center–pivot irrigation. Motorized pivots, like the 75–plus 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. Motor–driven pumps add to carbon emissions and deplete the shrinking Snake River Plain aquifer, one of Idaho’s most important freshwater sources.

Maintaining the status quo isn’t 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 re–place wells has just begun. It will incorporate data from new soil, vegetation and topography surveys. The soil map pinpoints clay hydric soils—which hold water longer than porous, sandy soils. The vegetation map shows former wetlands that still retain water–loving 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 refuge’s 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 devil’s advocate, saying, If it costs $70,000 to pump water every year and the wetlands are all going away, and, politically, there’s not a hell of a lot we can do about it, why don’t we just make it into an upland refuge” that is not dependent on wetlands?

“We considered that,” he says. “What’s at stake is, eastern Idaho doesn’t have many wetlands left. If we lose this refuge, a huge chunk of wetland is gone. You’re going to hurt swans, cranes, ducks, geese, all wildlife. As a manager, I can’t give this up, not yet. I have to try to make it the best I can as a wetland refuge, knowing I’m not going to get everything back.”

Susan Morse is a writer–editor in the Refuge System Branch of Communications.