What's a guzzler, and how does it help Siskiyou County's wildlife in a drought?

Skye Kinkade
Siskiyou Daily News

As humans struggle with the drought, wildlife has an even harder time adapting. Siskiyou County's deer, elk, bear, bobcat, mountain lion and bird populations are in danger as creeks dry up and lakes evaporate into hot air.

That's where guzzlers come in. 

These large plastic or aluminum water collection devices – 240 of them – are scattered throughout the Klamath and Shasta-Trinity national forests in Siskiyou County. When it rains, water is collected in the tanks, which range in size from 500 to 1,800 gallons. Set slightly below ground level, guzzlers have a step, stairs or drinking platform which allows thirsty wildlife to step down and reach the water.

Many of the county's guzzlers – some purchased 50 years ago or more, others more recently by the California Deer Association – have gone dry this summer due to lack of rainfall, explained John Dawson, a retired game warden lieutenant and current board member on the Siskiyou County Fish and Game Commission.

Most of Siskiyou County is in extreme drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. The McCloud Reservoir is about 65% full, but Lake Shastina – which was used heavily as a water source to fight the Lava Fire – is just 1% full. And the Shasta River is historically low, consisting of little more than treated outflow from the Yreka sewage plant, Friends of Shasta River reported earlier this month. 

A fire crew from the Goosenest Ranger District works to fill an 1,800 gallon guzzler, which can be seen in the background.

Keeping guzzlers full is his personal mission

Last month, the county Fish and Game commission voted to allocate $5,000 to repair guzzlers and pay for the fuel necessary for water trucks to reach them for filling.

Keeping Siskiyou County's guzzlers functional and full is a personal mission for retired California Fish and Game commissioner Harold Duchi, who often visits the various sites, adds water, makes repairs and sometimes builds fences around the tanks to keep cattle out.

Duchi enlisted the help of Goosenest District Ranger Drew Stroberg and Shasta-Trinity District Ranger Carolyn Napper, who both agreed that keeping guzzlers filled is a critically important project, said Dawson. Steve Pigoni, an alternate Fish and Game commissioner, assists with the project in south Siskiyou, primarily in the McCloud area.

Also lending a hand is the South Yreka Fire Department. Chief Bernie Paul volunteers his time and knowledge to deliver water to various guzzlers. His department agreed to front the fuel costs with the assurance that the county Fish and Game Commission will pay them back as soon as possible, said Dawson.

Harold Duchi and Bernie Paul fill an 800-gallon guzzler in Siskiyou County.

Animals are benefiting from local guzzlers, especially in Lava Fire footprint

Last week, Dawson, Paul and Duchi set out to inspect guzzlers in the Lava Fire's footprint. Many of the watering holes were about half full, said Dawson, and they marveled at the variety of animal tracks surrounding the tank.

As they were rolling up the hose, numerous birds visited the fresh water they'd just provided, said Dawson.

About 19 guzzlers were damaged by large equipment used to fight the lightning-sparked Lava Fire, which is about 75% contained and burned more than 20,000 acres in the Weed and Mt. Shasta areas. Duchi is seeking reimbursement for the cost of the tanks from the U.S. Forest Service.

The men noted dirt around many of the guzzlers has been reduced to powder from the constant traffic of wildlife visiting the tank to slake their thirst, Dawson said.

Trail cameras have been set up at various guzzlers, and Dawson said every kind of wildlife has been captured using them, including deer, elk, bear, bobcat, mountain lions, birds – even digger squirrels visit them for a drink.

How to help wildlife during a drought

Although there are laws in place in California that prevent people from feeding deer and other large game, providing water for them is a good idea, said Dawson, especially during a drought.

Putting a large container that's kept full of water is helpful to local wildlife, especially if you live in an area where there are deer.

One thing to remember: once you start providing water for wildlife, it's imperative you continue to do so, said Dawson, because they become dependent on that water source.

Another way to help: consider joining a local chapter of the California Deer Association which puts due money to work by maintaining Siskiyou County's guzzlers, Dawson said.

Skye Kinkade is the editor of the Mt. Shasta Area Newspapers and the Siskiyou Daily News. She is a fourth generation, lifelong Siskiyou County resident.