Lake Albert

 

In July 2013, Oregon’s remote Lake Abert, known for its saline waters, experienced a significant drop in water levels. As the lake dried up, its salt concentrations soared to levels that were lethal even to the few species adapted to such environments. This resulted in the mass die-off of tiny brine shrimp and alkali flies. By September, the water loss was so severe that a shimmering white crust of triangular salt crystals formed on the lakebed.

During July of that year, the lake had supported an impressive daily count of 350,000 shorebirds, surpassing the density found at the Great Salt Lake. However, as the lake dried out and remained empty into the following summer, bird counts plummeted by 90%. The years 2014, 2015, 2021, and 2022 saw the lake largely dry, with bird populations continuing to suffer drastically.

Although an unusually wet season last winter partially replenished the lake, scientists caution that the overall trend is still one of decline and that the factors that dried the lake persist.

Lake Abert, though largely unknown, is a crucial stopover for migratory birds adapted to inland saline waters. Over the past decade, the lake has dried up five times, leading to conflicts between conservationists and local ranchers who use water from the lake’s tributaries for irrigation.

In 2022, these opposing groups decided to collaborate, inspired by other conservation groups in the rural American West that have successfully brought together diverse stakeholders on issues like fire and species conservation. This new partnership, however, faces the harsh reality that the climate-changed American West lacks sufficient water resources to meet all needs.

Terminal or sink lakes like Abert form at the lowest points of closed basins, which have no surface outlets. In the American West, only a few large and permanent terminal lakes exist, including Abert, the Great Salt Lake, Mono Lake, and the Salton Sea.

These closed-basin water systems are rare because “you just get that one shot of water – what you see is what you have”, says Colleen Withers, a seventh-generation rancher in the basin.

The primary water source for Lake Abert is the Chewaucan River, which carries snowmelt across the valley’s steppe in spring. Ranchers divert the river into canals to flood grassy marshes where their cattle live and give birth. These irrigation systems date back to the early 1900s, but diversions have increased over time.

Currently, if all the water extraction rights on the Chewaucan were fully utilised, they would exceed the river’s flow. Climate change has exacerbated the situation by increasing evaporation from both the river and the lake.

This is particularly concerning for conservationists and scientists due to its impact on shorebirds like Wilson’s phalaropes and American avocets, which have adapted to live around saline lakes. These birds have developed specialized feeding habits and glands to excrete salts, allowing them to thrive in these environments. They are drawn to salt lakes for the abundance of invertebrates, such as flies and shrimp, which are plentiful due to the absence of fish or other predators.

At Lake Abert, these birds moult and double their body weight in preparation for their long migration south, with phalaropes traveling as far as Argentina. However, as the lake’s water level drops and salinity increases, invertebrates cannot survive, leading to a lack of food for the birds. These shorebirds are so specialized that they cannot easily relocate to other habitats, making the decline of Lake Abert potentially devastating for their populations.

“They’re on a razor’s edge in terms of their physiological abilities to survive – they are so dependent on these shallow saline lakes,” says Ron Larson, a retired scientist and member of the Oregon Lakes Association.

“We don’t want to get into a situation where the populations get so low that they can’t recover.”

In response to the lake’s decline, ranchers and landowners formed the Chewaucan Watershed Collaborative to engage in discussions about the watershed’s future. Ranchers emphasise the need to consider the entire watershed, noting that long-term drought conditions, exacerbated by climate change, have led to events like the 2021 fire that burned parts of the Fremont-Winema National Forest through which the Chewaucan River flows.

“Abert is at the end of the system, and the whole system is impacted,” says Tess Baker, a fourth-generation rancher in the basin.

Baker, Withers, Dreher and their spouses met in May 2022 to discuss collaborating. “We found right from those early meetings that it was easy to talk,” says Dreher.

They sought support from Oregon Consensus, an institution specialising in conflict resolution, and over the summer, they brought together environmental groups, government agencies, and local tribes to form the Partnership for Lake Abert and the Chewaucan.

Realising they lacked sufficient factual information, the group commissioned six months of research to gather scientific data, traditional tribal ecological knowledge, and ranchers’ experiences. One major point of contention is the ranchers’ water diversions. Ranchers argue that their flood irrigation practices mimic the natural hydrology of the marshes before the land was settled and drained in the late 1800s.

They say these marshes harbour an immense biodiversity of grasses – upwards of 50 species – and attract birds such as sandhill cranes, geese and black-necked stilts. “There’s a symbiotic relationship between wildlife and ranching,” says Keith Baker, Tess’s husband.

Conservation organisations and the Oregon state department of fish and wildlife supported the development of flood irrigation in the 1980s. However, Dreher and other scientists dispute that the practice accurately mimics natural marsh hydrology and argue that such water use should be reconsidered in light of increasing heat and water shortages.

“At the time, it seemed like there was enough water to go around for the lake and for this sort of irrigation,” he says. “And the thing is, that’s just no longer the case.”

Other conservationists believe Lake Abert’s unique ecological function should be prioritised over marshland ecosystems that exist elsewhere. “All the birds are important, and they all have their needs,” says Ryan Carle, science director of Oikonos Ecosystem Knowledge.

But for certain shorebirds, he says, Lake Abert is “the only habitat providing what they need. Whereas if you’re flood-irrigating habitat in the basin for ducks, it’s important, but there are other habitats that ducks use too.”

Wilson Wewa of the Warm Springs Paiute Tribe asserts that ranchers have a responsibility to reduce their water usage. “The water is finite and its overuse is spelling the doom of [Abert],” he says. “The land has a voice too, and the lakes too, and nobody’s listening to them.”

Two primary solutions have been used elsewhere to conserve lakes. In California, lawsuits invoking the public trust doctrine, which mandates state protection of water bodies for community benefit, established minimum water levels for Mono Lake. Similarly, environmental groups in Utah announced a lawsuit for the Great Salt Lake in September 2023. Another option is to set minimum flow requirements for the Chewaucan River to ensure sufficient water reaches Lake Abert.

Currently, the partnership does not have a specific goal but hopes that a collaborative process will yield a viable solution to sustain Lake Abert and its vital ecological functions.

“We want water in Abert,” says Keith Baker, “because it means the whole system is satisfied.”

 

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