A drying lake, and a conundrum


On the first truly warm morning this spring, I awoke to the songs of birds. From high in the cottonwood came the clear melodic whistles of a northern oriole, fresh in from the southland. Soon this migratory bird and its partner would find a suitable branch from which to hang their nest, intricately weaving it from grasses and horsehair from a nearby paddock. I could also hear the eerie wubwubwubwub of a snipe’s wings as it circled the cattails in the lower pasture, where last year it raised its brood.

I exult in the avian paradise our western Colorado valley becomes in spring, with its orioles and snipes, hummingbirds and kinglets, warblers and dozens of other species. Occasionally, I pause to consider how such concentrated feathered wealth survives in this high-desert ecosystem. The truth is that many of the birds would not be here — or at least not in such abundance — were it not for the verdant habitat we humans have created. Without the irrigation waters we draw from the creeks and rivers, no cottonwoods would grow on the hillsides or spruce trees in the towns. The only wetlands would be narrow bands of green along the original waterways.

What birdsong would fill the air if our waters receded? That’s the increasingly urgent question bird-lovers, biologists, ranchers and water managers face in arid southern Oregon. As Hillary Rosner reports in this issue’s cover story, Lake Abert, one of a handful of natural salty bodies of water in the Great Basin, is a key feeding ground for hundreds of thousands of migratory birds. Last year, it effectively dried up for the first time since the 1930s. Only a handful of phalaropes and avocets appeared, because there was scarcely any food.

Executive Director and Publisher Paul Larmer

The cause of the lake’s recession is far from clear. Is it driven primarily by climate change, or by the diversion of the river waters that feed the lake? There is no definitive answer, Rosner notes, because no one has monitored the waters flowing into the lake or into the ditches that water local ranches and farms. Further complicating the problem is the fact that those very diversions have created new habitat for a different complement of bird species. Ducks, cranes and ibises now rely on these human-created wetlands, and they would be harmed if water were diverted from the fields to replenish the 36,500-acre basin.

The Abert conundrum is one that will become increasingly common in our region as prolonged drought diminishes snowpack and water supplies. Westerners will have to work together to balance a variety of values; we will have to think carefully about how we choose — and take care of — our habitat. The birds, meanwhile, will adapt the best they can. At least they’ve had millennia to practice.

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