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Abert Lake

Lake Abert, a remote saltwater lake in Oregon’s high desert, is shrinking. In the last decade, its water volume has dropped more than 90 percent. Oregon’s only saline lake, it has gone dry twice in the last eight years: in 2014 and again in 2021. Located about 25 miles north of Lakeview in south central Oregon, this lake is a critical stopover for migratory birds traveling along the Pacific Flyway. It provides essential habitat for breeding and migration for over 80,000 migratory birds each year—shorebirds, waterfowl, and other water birds, representing about 80 species. Among the supported species are a significant percentage of the populations of American Avocets, Wilson’s Phalaropes, Northern Shovelers, Eared Grebes, Western Sandpipers, and “threatened” Snowy Plovers. According to one report, there has been a decline of nearly 82% in bird sightings at Lake Abert when water levels are low.

When water gets too scarce, the lake becomes too salty even for the critters that are adapted to live in saline lakes. When the brine shrimp and brine flies cannot survive, the birds are left without their major food source. This spells disaster for energy-depleted migrating birds and for breeding birds needing resources to support their young. In addition, the birds themselves are physiologically stressed by the increased salt load.

There are several proposed explanations as to why the lake is drying up. Climate change is exacerbating the problem with higher temperatures and longer droughts. And some of the loss is due to irrigation by nearby ranchers and farmers. However, in some other years that were not as dry as 2014 and 2021, although the lake shrank, it did not dry up. Some have proposed that the straw that broke the camel’s back was the diversion of water due to the River’s End Reservoir and dam. A recent report revealed that in 2015, a DEQ employee proposed that this state-subsidized reservoir project had worsened the lake’s decline. She was directed to stop the investigation on this.

Today, interest in focusing on the problem has been rekindled, with a push to investigate the causes and support the protection of Lake Abert. The National Audubon Society and partners have asked that water levels and flows be monitored, water availability and water budgets be analyzed, and instream water rights be established in a way that supports healthy aquatic ecosystems and engages with the appropriate tribes. They also seek passage of federal legislation, the Saline Lake Ecosystems in the Great Basin States Program Act, which would appropriate funds to study, monitor, and support the lake.

It is essential that wide swaths of habitat be protected to support an array of birds and other wildlife, but it is often quite a battle to make that happen on the large scale that is needed. Here is an opportunity to conserve a relatively small area that we know has an outsized impact on the security of bird populations. Urge your legislators to make it happen.

Nice video of the birds at lake Abert: