Kim Forrest

Refuge Manager of the San Luis NWR


Alison M. Jones

NWNL Director & Photographer

Los Banos, San Joaquin River Basin, California - November 14, 2018


Central Valley Water Management
A Water Refuge for Migrating Birds
Water Levels in the Refuge
The Inspiration of Wetlands

All images © Alison M Jones. All rights reserved. 

Central Valley Water Management

Hello, Kim. Thank you for your kind welcome to the San Luis National Wildlife Refuge. We’ve enjoyed your tour of this lovely Visitor Center with its interactive educational exhibits on wildlife and habitats, and thank you for pointing out the 2 tule elk outside! Would you please introduce yourself by explaining where we are? 

KIM FORREST  I’m the refuge manager of the San Luis National Wildlife Refuge Complex [hereafter San Luis NWR], which is within the Department of Interior, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. We are fortunate to be located at San Luis Refuge in Merced County in California’s Central Valley.   

NWNL  The California water system is fairly unique, complex and now troubled. Could you explain how the ecology of the San Joaquin River fits into California’s thirsty need for water for municipalities and agriculture?  

KIM FORREST  The San Joaquin River has gotten a lot of attention in recent years, especially after a 20-year lawsuit between NRDC and Friant CA over on the loss of the salmon run in that river. The San Joaquin is the second largest river in California, and if you go to the headwaters in the Sierras, it’s a spectacular river up at Thousand Island Lake at the headwaters. However, down here there are places where it goes totally dry because it’s so over-drafted. So they’re looking at putting water back in that river to sustain fisheries. 

This a very flat valley, and [when there was plenty of water] the river would whip back and forth across the valley to create myriad braided-river channels. So, the ecology we try to mimic here [at San Luis NWR] is based on the original hydrology of that river.   

NWNL  Regarding efforts to put more water into the San Joaquin, where does the legal situation stand? 

KIM FORREST  It’s a massive project. Putting water back in the San Joaquin River is a massive undertaking. A lot of agencies and NGOs are involved and there are many moving parts. It’s a complicated process involving hydrology, geomorphology, fisheries, temperatures of the water, and timing of the water flows. 

The San Luis NWR is just one little tiny part of the San Joaquin Basin, in that we own a piece of land that the river goes through.  

NWNL  When you say “we own the land,” is it the taxpayers who “own the land” of this refuge? 

KIM FORREST  The National Wildlife Refuge system has about 550 refuges. Within this complex there are 3 refuges – and they’re owned by the American people. 


NWNL  OK – it’s our land, but why should Americans in San Diego or Seattle care? Why are these refuges important? 


KIM FORREST  The refuges here in the Central Valley of California are particularly important to migratory birds. If you picture the Pacific Flyway like an hourglass, then these wetlands of the Central Valley are kind of the narrow neck of the hourglass. 


And there’s not a lot of habitat left. About 5% of the original wetlands are left. So you get intense concentrations of water birds, particularly ducks and geese, swans and cranes. There are up to a million in this location. In spring we get about 1/4 million shore birds migrating through. The waterfowl and cranes winter here. Some shore birds winter here; and then mostly they move through in the spring at very specific times. 


NWNL  Before we get to the drought, are there other threats that face the health of the ecosystems here and its habitats? 


KIM FORREST  Well, when you talk about the threats to this ecosystem, you have to start with the fact that only 5-10% of these ecosystems are left. Whether it’s wetlands, riparian woodlands, or native uplands, very little is left. 


So, we manage what we have left very, very carefully – and very, very intensively. We maximize what we get out of every acre. 


NWNL  So now we’re in the middle of a drought. Can you describe the drought and its impacts? 


KIM FORREST  Our whole hydrology is extremely artificially recreated and managed. Our water on these refuges is primarily from Shasta Reservoir a few hundred miles to the north. It’s wheeled through the systems of canals, the San Luis Reservoir, down to the Mendota Pool and then back north, creating kind of a slingshot through a variety of irrigation districts. Water is well used before it gets to us, and very artificially managed. 


Our allotment here on these refuges and most of the refuges in the Central Valley are part of the California Department of Fish and Wildlife area. Here in our grassland water district, water is distributed to a couple of hundred duck clubs and private wetlands. These Central Valley areas, that I’ll call “refuges,” have allotments designated for each unit of each refuge and by month, because of the Central Valley Project Improvement Act. In the sixties, Central Valley Project was a system that built the system of reservoirs and canals. The Improvement Act, passed in 1992, gave all of these areas an allotment of water that, prior to that, could have gotten zero water and been totally dry, because we had no priority. 


Basically, this Improvement Act made recreation or supplying water to those wetlands mitigation for the damage done by the project. So pretty much all of these areas serve as mitigation for something. 


NWNL  So to understand this slingshot, when I was here in March, I went to the Mendota Canal to see how Central Valley’s water comes down from the aqueduct and then slings back up into this area. 


KIM FORREST  Yes, that happens through a system of smaller and smaller canals and through various irrigation districts that handle different geographic areas. About five different irrigation districts serve this complex. 


NWNL  So they limit what is extracted from the water in their district so there’s enough left for you here? Is that how is works? 


KIM FORREST  Actually, the “throttle” is what the Bureau of Reclamation designates for these areas from Shasta Reservoir. And that’s based on many things, particularly hydrologic conditions. 

A Water Refuge for Migrating Birds

We have an allotment, but in a severe drought, by law it can drop by 75%.  However, in some respects, these areas are in a perpetual state of drought. Back in prior decades, modeling was done mostly by conservation organizations to see how much food is needed in winter by ducks and geese and basin by basin, not just valley-wide. By modeling how much food is produced for those wintering birds and expected flights year by year, we realized we were chronically short on food being produced in the San Joaquin Valley.

We bought more land and built more wetlands. Those new wetlands have been added, and new units have been added since 1992 when the Central Valley Project Improvement Act was enacted. If we don’t have a water allotment and station budgets, we can’t afford to run water. So they’re often perpetually dry.

NWNL  Does that mean you don’t have enough food for the migratory birds? 

KIM FORREST With fully flooded wetlands, if we can irrigate and produce a lot of food in the summertime, we run out of food right about the time the birds are looking to move back north. So that cuts it real close, and it varies with the fall migration forecasts. This year bird numbers are expected to be very high, because production was very high up in Canada where the birds are produced. 

NWNL  Could you talk about how this 2014 drought is different than previous droughts? 

KIM FORREST The difference with this drought, I think, primarily is how persistent it is. We’re entering about our fourth year of drought, and so the reservoir levels continue to drop, the ground continues to get drier and drier, the water table is dropping, people are drilling more and more wells, and the water tables drop. The result is they have to drill deeper and deeper, but the water levels continue to drop and the land subsides.  


All of that has affected us. For example, one of our refuges has wells and gets a surface supply delivered. But we have to put the wells in the wintertime when local irrigation district shuts down. So then we have to start running wells. Those costs are paid under the CVPIA. However, when new permanent crops go in all around us and more and more wells are drilled, our water table drops. Then we have to lower or deepen our wells, which pretty much we can’t afford to do, since every time you pull a well, it’s $10,000.00. So we have wells that are going dry. This year, we had essentially no water in the summertime to grow food crops, for an even bigger flight of birds that we’re expecting through the winter.  


NWNL  Do you think this is a new norm? Does California (as a state) or we (as a nation) need to consider the Central Valley as an arid area again? After all, it was a low sea in a depressed area. 


KIM FORREST Yes, California, in general, is a very arid area. The Central Valley had wetlands that bird species are adapted to, as well as the natural flooding of the valley. Like I said before, the San Joaquin River moved around and flooded a lot. It created in the Central Valley with about 4 million acres of wetlands. So birds adapted to a lot of wetlands in the late winter through the spring from that flooding. Those are the conditions we’re trying to recreate. So yes, this is a dry area, but it flooded a lot for brief periods. 


This year we’re getting 50% of a full supply, and so about 50% of our wetlands are flooded, which is surprising, considering the ground was extremely dry. The canals were extremely dry. Water tables are dropping, so we actually are about 65% flooded with a 50% supply, which is surprising, because it was hard for water to get down miles of canals that were extraordinarily dry and soaked up a lot of water just getting the water out to the wetlands. 


In preparation for the fall flights of winter birds – ducks, geese, shore birds, cranes – we do a lot of big flood-up, September through February. This year we had a little bounce, but hardly any irrigations in the summertime in order to have the flood up in the wintertime. 



What concerns me is the lack of crops we didn’t grow in the summer and thus the body condition of the birds that come down here. We have data from the ’80s before we had a reliable water supply when we monitored birds shot by hungers and looked at body condition. In the ’80s we had a lot of skinny ducks. If birds are in bad body condition, they don’t survive well through the winter and the migration back north very well. Also, they don’t reproduce nearly as well, because they don’t have the energy, the food energy. 

Water Levels in the Refuge

Are there many saying low water levels is the future, the new norm? And, if so, what is the best thing we can do as stewards of the land, the refuge and migratory waterfowl?  

KIM FORREST  I’m not in a position to speak about climate change, so I don’t know if it’s the new norm as far as nature-imposed changes. But there are a lot of manmade changes being made. It’s up to society to decide what’s most important, and that tends to be a bit fluid sometimes.   

NWNL  Let’s say hypothetically that the next 20 or 50 years will be like this… What are the best things that we can do to create a sustainable management solution for migratory waterfowl? 

KIM FORREST  Supply water! They’re waterfowl! Water, and allotting public water resources, is what the Central Valley Project and the State Water Project are all about. Those are owned by the people of the United States, California can designate allotments to these wetlands for water birds if they want them to persist. 

NWNL  Are government regulations, quotas and allotments the best solutions at this point? 


KIM FORREST  Hypothetically, yes – if this drought persisted for 20 years. In reality, like I said, some of it’s a natural drought, and some is a manmade drought. So in a very artificially-altered and manipulated environment like the Central Valley of California, we have the ability to allocate adequate water supplies for our water birds, if that’s what the people of California and the people of the United States want. 

The Inspiration of Wetlands

Why are water birds important? Why should we care? That relates to the duck to smell [ph], and you know how the farmers feel about them. So explain to viewers why we should care about our waterfowl. 

KIM FORREST  I think people should care about waterfowl, water birds, geese and cranes and the shore birds, because they’re very inspirational.  They move in tremendously large flocks.  They’re awe-inspiring when you see those birds.  They’re fascinating.  There’s not much that gets you more connected with nature than massive flocks of pintails flying over the marsh at sunset — or the sound of cranes just after dark, thousands of sandhill cranes.

When you look at a shallow wetland in the springtime, it can have 20 different species of shore birds you know are migrating to Russia’s Kamchatka Peninsula or in the fall to southern Argentina. It’s just mindboggling what these birds can do  I’m very cognizant of the fact that the American people own this National Wildlife Refuge.  I work for them; it’s their refuge; and so we do everything possible, since it’s the American people who own this place. These water projects belong to the people of the U.S. and California. It’s up to them where that water goes.

NWNL  How do we message that more clearly? How do we make this have power, because it is ours? It’s our land, and you talked about the inspiration. How do we better message the value and security of knowing that this water and this land is out there? 

KIM FORREST  Getting the word out to Americans is very difficult, especially urban users. The Fish and Wildlife Service has a new outreach program for people in big cities, and especially children, A lot of public money is being sent to urban refuges, like Long Island Refuge, San Francisco Bay Refuge, San Diego Refuge. We’re fortunate to have been able to build this visitor center with economic stimulus money. When we designed it, we designed it for all ages., and can now have a summertime youth program for a dozen kids at a time. That’s a lot.  Then we try to work them into summer jobs. So we’re cultivating people from the time they’re very young. We’re also trying to make our refuges less restrictive, more family-friendly and inspiring to children. 

NWNL  You talked about the Kamchatka Peninsula and the migratory birds’ astoundingly inspiring route… Does that inspire your visitors? 

KIM FORREST  Yes, birds that move through here impact humans and have for millennia. To see 10,000 pintail ducks flying into a wetland at sunset and hear the whistling of their wings is pretty jaw-dropping, as is listening to the sound of thousands of sandhill cranes at sunrise, or the swooping and diving of a flock of shore birds being chased by a falcon. Children especially remember these scenes for the rest of their lives, and that leads to healthier lives – more stable and sound, both mentally and physically. It helps children form who they are and find who they are. 

NWNL  Do the children grasp the wonder of bird’s migratory paths? 


KIM FORREST  Bird routes are some of the most amazing things, if you can wrap your head around them. We have birds move through here that have flown down from the Kamchatka Peninsula of Russia, the Bering Sea and the boreal forest of northern Canada, … all extremely important bird nurseries. 


Many birds live across a gigantic swathe of the globe. There are shore birds that will fly a migration route of 4,000 miles without stopping.  This San Joaquin River National Wildlife Refuge was established for Aleutian Canada geese that were almost extinct in the mid ‘70s. They will fly nonstop from the Aleutian Islands, where they breed, across the Pacific Ocean to Northern California and Oregon, and fly down to this part of California.  There’s pretty astonishing, and why they need the fuel in our wetlands for their flight back.


NWNL  What would happen to this refuge and those birds if there were no water allotments? 

KIM FORREST  If there were gaps in the wet links in this migration chain down through the center of California, the chain would be broken. Birds would continue to fly that route, not find much water, and be crowded onto smaller and smaller wetlands. There would then be disease outbreaks among hungry birds. As with humans, disease spreads when birds are crowded, and big die-offs gradually cause bird populations to decline, as it already has over the last couple hundred years. There’s nothing today like the birds we had at the turn of the last century. 


Fortunately, the Fish and Wildlife Service, the California Department of Fish and Game, and private wetland owners have put in a lot of blood, sweat, and tears to get by with what we have, and we’ve continued to do that year after year. Those people should be honored. 


NWNL  I think it’s partnership that will create win-win solutions.  


KIM FORREST  Together we can foster common goals. We also work with and honor other federal and other state agencies like the California Department of Water Resources and the Grassland Water District, which represents the local waterfowl hunters here in the Northern San Joaquin Valley, Audubon Society, Nature Conservancy…. There are a lot of entities pulling together to maximize what we can do with what we have. We also work with universities and other local universities, and American Rivers.  


Since we’re strung out along the San Joaquin River, we’re lacking floodplain habitat for smolts and fry – the little baby fish –  to grow. On these real wide floodplains where the water is shallow. slow and maybe a little warmer, we get blossoms of explosions of bugs and invertebrates that allow these little fish just grow explosively. Because they become very big very fast, they’re able to survive the migration out to the ocean and life in the ocean. So we’re looking at two of our refuges as floodplain habitat for salmon American Rivers and Ducks Unlimited, and Trout Unlimited are partnering with us, and a couple universities.  


NWNL  We’ve also partnered with American Rivers. In March, their director Amy Kober directing me to different places for drought documentation, and specifically giving me directions to San Mateo where the San Joaquin River is drying up. One of my photos from there ended up on their cover this year since they have named the San Joaquin River as the most endangered river in the US. I think the work that they’re doing is very strong.  


KIM FORREST  A consortium of people like that brings many different talents to the table, and so it makes an even stronger partnership. 


NWNL  No Water No Life was moving along and fulfilling its Mission by documenting watersheds. Then, we began to develop partnerships, and became much stronger! 


I came from a “Do it yourself” ethos. Develop your thesis. Write your paper. Hand it in. But educators now emphasize teamwork. I saw that with my daughters. I’m still not used to it, but I’ve learned its advantages. So NWNL works with great partners, which means many more ideas and expanded energy are swirling around on the table now, so that’s good. 


KIM FORREST  And different strengths, different talents. We may not be able to go after a grant that’s only for state and local or NGOs, because we’re federal, but we can do something else, so bring different things to the table. It makes a bigger whole. The sum is greater than the parts, I guess. 


NWNL  Yes, a project can be like a snowflake: pretty vulnerable by itself, but when you put a lot of snowflakes together, you’ve got a blizzard – or perhaps an avalanche. 


My last question, which I ask everybody, is how did you get involved in watershed conservation? 


KIM FORREST  I think about the next generation, I think about my very privileged upbringing. When I grew up, we spent a month every summer in the backcountry of Yosemite packing with mules to the middle of no place. The packer would drop off five mules full of stuff, and then come back a month later and pick us up. For the rest of the summer, my mother would take my sister and I back to our family farm in Iowa that’s been in our family for 160 years. In the winter, we went skiing up around Lake Tahoe. And I grew up in Monterey. So it’s hard not to be inspired growing up in places like that. 


NWNL  Thank you very much for your time and your thoughts, Kim. And thank you for your inspiring messages! Enjoy your waterfowl! 

Posted by NWNL on October 19, 2023.
Transcription edited and condensed for clarity by Alison M. Jones.

All images © Alison M. Jones, unless otherwise noted. All rights reserved.