Major Explosions to Restore Wetlands in Oregon's Klamath Basin

Share Article

Nature Conservancy and Partners Use Carefully Placed Explosives to Breach Levees, Restore Wetlands for Fish and Wildlife


Today’s event will advance the recovery of two endangered fish species, benefit other fish and wildlife, improve water quality, and increase water storage in the Klamath Basin. Restoration of these wetlands is an important and necessary step toward resolving habitat and water quality issues in the region.

Today, The Nature Conservancy and partners will detonate approximately two miles of levees to restore wetlands at the Conservancy’s 7,400 acre Williamson River Delta Preserve in southern Oregon. This will require 100 tons of explosives at four locations along the levee, causing Upper Klamath Lake to flood 2,500 acres within one hour. The use of explosives to restore wetlands follows months of intense study, engineering, and construction.

“The use of this wetlands restoration technique at such a large scale is unprecedented,” said Stephanie Meeks, acting president and CEO of The Nature Conservancy. “Maintaining healthy freshwater systems is one of the greatest conservation challenges we face today. We lose 60,000 acres of wetlands every year in the U.S. alone, but the Klamath Basin project will help ease this trend by revitalizing the area’s natural wetlands, restoring habitat for endangered species, and helping local communities.”

“This project has the support of leading scientists and Klamath Basin stakeholders,” said Mark Stern, Klamath Basin conservation director for The Nature Conservancy. “Today’s event will advance the recovery of two endangered fish species, benefit other fish and wildlife, improve water quality, and increase water storage in the Klamath Basin. Restoration of these wetlands is an important and necessary step toward resolving habitat and water quality issues in the region.”

For thousands of years, the Williamson River deposited sediments across a vast delta where the river enters Upper Klamath Lake. But in the 1950s, 22 miles of dikes were constructed around the delta and along the river to convert rich bottomland wetland soils into farmland. These barriers channeled the lower Williamson River directly into the lake, allowing farmers to use the land for decades.

But the draining of these wetlands for agriculture had a serious downside: it eliminated extensive critical habitat for fish and wildlife and contributed to a decline in water quality in Upper Klamath Lake and the Klamath River downstream.

When two species of fish, the shortnose sucker and the Lost River sucker, were declared endangered in 1988, scientists in the Upper Klamath Lake determined that a primary cause of their decline was the loss of marshlands in the lower reaches and mouth of the Williamson River.

Shortly afterward, local stakeholders identified restoration of these wetlands as critically important to the efforts to recover the species and improve water quality and storage in Upper Klamath Lake.

Stern added, “Wetlands are critically important resources for wildlife and people alike. They filter pollutants, store water to prevent flooding, and provide nursery and nesting habitat and feeding areas for fish, birds, and other aquatic life. We’ve seen the grave consequences of eliminating those wetlands in Klamath Basin, and today, we’re bringing some of them back.”

Working with these stakeholders, which include the Upper Klamath Basin Working Group, local farmers, industries, tribes, and state and federal agencies, the Conservancy has been coordinating wetlands restoration at the site and working to reconnect the lower 3.5 miles of the Williamson River to its former delta since 1996. The benefits of today’s wetlands restoration will be significant for nature and for people, and the Conservancy will continue to farm 750 acres of adjoining uplands, working with a local grower to produce organic alfalfa.

Today’s event represents the largest restoration effort to date and the first time explosives have been used to revitalize the Klamath’s wetlands. Because the levee soils are unstable, the use of carefully calibrated explosives is the safest way to achieve the goal of deconstructing the dikes in four strategic locations.

“We’ve taken every measure to ensure the safety of the contractors and engineers involved in today’s events,” said Jerry Wallace, chief explosives engineer for the event. “Guards will monitor the preserve’s entrance to ensure no unauthorized personnel enter the property, security personnel will be at each breach site right up until just before detonation to ensure that no one is in danger, and contractors will patrol the lake in the vicinity of the breaches.”

Precautionary measures will also minimize impacts to fish and wildlife. Small blasts will be set off just prior to the explosions to ward off any nearby fish and birds, and dirt from the explosions will be directed inward toward the land, not outward into the lake. Breaching the levees will reduce the level of Upper Klamath Lake overall by about two inches.

Key funders and partners in the Williamson River Delta acquisition and restoration are: The Natural Resources Conservation Service, National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, PacifiCorp, North American Wetlands Conservation Act, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Bureau of Reclamation, Upper Klamath Basin Working Group, Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board, The Klamath Tribes, Willard L Eccles Charitable Foundation, Cell Tech and other community groups.

The Nature Conservancy is a leading conservation organization working around the world to protect ecologically important lands and waters for nature and people. To date, the Conservancy and its more than one million members have been responsible for the protection of more than 15 million acres in the United States and have helped preserve more than 102 million acres in Latin America, the Caribbean, Asia and the Pacific. Visit The Nature Conservancy on the Web at

Stephen Anderson, 503-802-8100
Steve Ertel, 703-841-2652


Share article on social media or email:

View article via:

Pdf Print

Contact Author

Stephen Anderson

Steve Ertel

Email >
Visit website