A New Research and Monitoring Program for Lake Abert

Ron Larson

A welcome step toward improved management and conservation of an imperiled saline lake

Oregon Natural Desert Association is thrilled to see bipartisan support for a new program supporting improved conservation and management of saline lakes across the west, including Oregon’s Lake Abert.

Both the U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate have passed the Saline Lake Ecosystems in the Great Basin States Program Act, which now heads to President Biden’s desk to become law.

Championed locally by Oregon Senator Merkley and with support from Senator Wyden, this legislation establishes a federal research and monitoring program to support improved conservation and management of several unique and imperiled saline lakes across the west. These lakes, including Oregon’s Lake Abert as well as the Great Salt Lake (Utah), Mono Lake (California) and others, provide critically important stopover habitat to millions of migratory birds traveling along the Pacific Flyway.

“Oregon’s Lake Abert is second only to the Great Salt Lake among saline lakes in its importance to migratory birds. It’s absolutely imperative that we see improved water management to ensure the lake receives the water it needs to support a rich, thriving ecosystem for birds coming from as far away as Alaska and Argentina,” said Ryan Houston, Executive Director of the Oregon Natural Desert Association.

“The Saline Lakes Act provides critically-important resources for top quality monitoring, assessment and research to inform long-term restoration of this threatened ecosystem in Oregon’s high desert. We’re very grateful to Senator Merkley for his steadfast commitment to this legislation and deeply appreciative of the National Audubon Society’s west-wide leadership on saline lakes conservation.”

Lake Abert is a conservation priority as one of Oregon’s most unique – and most imperiled – ecosystems in the high desert. When allowed the water it needs, the lake teems with billions of brine shrimp and alkali flies that feed more than 80 species of resident and migratory shorebirds, waterbirds and waterfowl known to inhabit the area.

A long history of water management decisions in the region have left Lake Abert without a reliable supply of water and, in 2014 and 2021, Lake Abert went dry. Several interrelated factors, including over-appropriated water rights, ongoing drought, and the construction of a state-sanctioned reservoir, contribute to the current challenges facing the lake.

Fortunately, as ONDA and other local, state and national conservation organizations presented last spring, there are steps the state can and must take to ensure that a sufficient amount of water reaches the lake. Some of these steps include:

  • Monitor and measure stream flows, groundwater levels, lake levels and water use;
  • Enforce decades-old management recommendations and permit requirements at the Rivers End Ranch reservoir to ensure state-identified minimum bypass flows are implemented;
  • Develop and adopt instream water rights to support future streamflow restoration efforts; and
  • Continue to support collaborative water management solutions to identify, develop and implement voluntary projects that result in a more reliable water supply to Lake Abert.

Oregon Natural Desert Association looks forward to supporting and participating in U.S. Geological Survey’s new program to better understand conservation and restoration needs and opportunities at Lake Abert.

ONDA has published a comprehensive discussion of the threats and conservation needs at Lake Abert to help those interested in conserving the lake learn more about this unique ecosystem, the threats it faces and its restoration needs. These resources are available at ONDA.org/regions/hart-sheldon-region/lake-abert/. On February 1, 2023, ONDA will host a virtual presentation, “Desert Oasis: The Birds of Lake Abert,” featuring avian photography to illuminate this special ecosystem.