When water turns to dust

In Oregon, a cluster of lakes is drying up — with dire impacts for the millions of migrating birds that survive off them.

To reach Lake Abert, in the high desert of southern Oregon, you can drive south from Bend for about two and a half hours, across the remote northern end of the Great Basin, where there is nothing but you and the sky and the occasional prairie dog dashing across the road. Or you can head north from Reno for four hours, across an equally remote slice of far northeastern California, where, in the rolling sagebrush of the Lassen National Forest, you might feel as if you’ve reached the center of nowhere.


Which is to say, Lake Abert is seriously off the beaten path. Unless you’re a migrating shorebird or waterbird: an eared grebe, perhaps, or a Wilson’s phalarope. In that case, chances are high that your ancestors have visited Lake Abert every fall — and perhaps every spring — for thousands of years. There, generation after generation, they’ve fattened up for the long journey to South America, happily chowing down on the brine shrimp and brine flies that usually thrive in this vast salt lake. This August or September, though, when your flock touches down at Lake Abert, you might find that the 36,500-acre basin has turned to dust.

That happened last summer, when the lake was effectively dry. Winds swept clouds of salty earth across the desiccated lakebed, and there was no brine for shrimp and flies to grow in. The year before, in 2014, the lake had been close to dry, too, for the first time since the 1930s. What little water remained was too salty for the invertebrates, meaning there was nothing for the birds to eat. In a normal August, Craig Foster, the local biologist for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, will count a million phalaropes — rusty-backed sandpipers that swim in circles as they feed. “But last year,” he says, “I think we had like 2,000.”

Foster has a white handlebar mustache and the tanned, grizzled countenance of a life lived outdoors in the sun. He has spent much of it here in Lake County, nearly 8,400 square miles of ranchland where the population is roughly one person per square mile. Most towns are little more than a general store, and you can drive for nearly 100 miles without finding gas. During the first week of September, Foster says, it usually takes him two and a half hours to drive up U.S. 395, on Abert’s eastern rim, stopping at every pullout to count shorebirds. Last year, it took 20 minutes. “You stop, set up your spotting scope, and go, yeah, there’s six gulls and three ravens,” Foster told me, as we stood at Abert’s edge in late April, watching a few dozen grebes float in the cool water.

Where the birds went last year is a mystery. In the network of a half dozen or so nearby lakes that make up a mosaic of Pacific Flyway stopping points — including Goose Lake, on the California border; Summer Lake, northwest of Abert; and Hart Lake, eastward in the Warner Valley — many were vanishingly low. And this corner of the Great Basin represents but one tale in an anthology of system-wide decline. “If you just had one lake in isolation that failed, you might be inclined to say that’s not that big a deal,” says Stanley Senner, a shorebird expert and the National Audubon Society’s vice president for Pacific Flyway bird conservation. “The discouraging thing is, we’re looking at region-wide degradation and loss of saline lakes.”

The three dozen or so species of waterbirds that use this part of the Great Basin — including ducks, geese, gulls, terns, American avocets and black-necked stilts — have adapted to these lakes’ highly variable conditions over thousands of years. If one lake is dry, they observe it from the air and veer off to another. “The problem going forward,” says Senner, “is that what’s been highly variable in the past may be rapidly moving toward a steady-state decline, where you have problems at multiple sites. And then I don’t see any way that the bird populations can be sustained in the kind of numbers they have seen historically.”

With warmer temperatures and persistent drought likely to become the regional status quo, these lakes face an increasingly precarious future.

What will happen this year is uncertain. When I visited it with Foster, Lake Abert was just one-eighth full. Its main source, the Chewaucan River (pronounced she-wa-can), was still spilling into the lake. But irrigation season was just days away, and once the upstream ranchers began drawing river water, there might soon be none left for the lake. Like so many rivers in the West, the Chewaucan is over-allocated. Historically, some water would flow into the lake year-round. But now, during drought years, “there’s not enough water to go around,” Foster says. “Whatever water you get in a drought year comes before irrigation season starts.”

Unfortunately for the birds, they use the lake primarily in late summer, which is exactly when it may become largely dry.  Lake Abert ranks among the most important sites in the Western Hemisphere for shorebirds. Surely, you might think, there must be a plan in place — or at least in the works — to ensure adequate water levels. But you’d be wrong. Despite its recognized international importance — it may be crucial to some bird populations’ survival — Lake Abert has no legal right to water. And, at present, the only agency that has jurisdiction over its water — the Oregon Water Resources Department — has no plans to change anything.


Lake Abert water levels had yet to reach this gauge in early May despite a good water year in southern Oregon.
Eli Reichman

Back in the late Pleistocene, maybe 25,000 years ago, a massive glacial lake called Pluvial Lake Chewaucan covered 480 square miles of what’s now southern Oregon. In those wetter, colder times, the giant lake, formed by rocky blocks of earth dropping down along a fault line, was 350 feet deep in spots. About 4,000 years ago, as the climate warmed and dried, river flows slowed and the large lake shrank into a few smaller, disconnected, shallow ones. Drive through the region’s valleys today, and you can see the ancient shorelines embossed on hillsides.

Today, even when completely full, Lake Abert averages just seven feet deep. Abert and its companion lakes are closed-basin systems  — terminal lakes, the end points of rivers, with no outlet except to the air. Lake County averages 49 inches of evaporation a year, Foster says, but just 10 inches of precipitation.

By the late 1800s, when European settlers arrived, the Great Basin was the desert we know today. To raise cattle and grow crops, settlers needed water. “So people start diverting water out of the rivers, streams, even the springs that feed these dying lakes,” says Michael Crotteau, a forest hydrologist and the climate change coordinator for the U.S. Forest Service’s office in Lakeview, the seat of Lake County, about 25 miles south of Abert.

Crotteau arrived in his current post in the summer of 2014, two years into the drought. “Goose Lake was completely dry,” he recalls. “Summer Lake was completely dry. Abert had just a puddle in it.” He marvels at the fact that, into the early 1900s, there was regular north-south ferry service across Goose Lake’s 26 miles. In April, I’d been driving north alongside the lakebed for nearly 15 minutes before I realized it was in fact Goose Lake, and that there was water shimmering somewhere way out in its middle.

According to climate models, this part of the country will see an increase of 2.6 degrees Celsius (4.7 Fahrenheit) by 2040 or so, and upwards of 4.7 degrees Celsius (8.5 Fahrenheit) by 2090. “What it really does mean, that we saw in winter of 2014 to 2015, is a lot less winter snow,” Crotteau says. It’s not so much the amount of precipitation, but the type that will change. Melting snowpack delivers a consistent supply of what Crotteau calls “live water.” With less of that to sustain the river’s flows during the irrigation season, he says, “the lakes will see a drop in their water levels a lot faster than they do now.”

That means Abert might contain water in the spring but be largely dry by mid-summer — exactly when hungry birds begin arriving from Alaska and Canada, looking for easy, high-protein food to fuel their journeys.

Abert and the Great Basin’s other saline lakes are home to vast numbers of brine shrimp and brine flies that breed in the alkaline water and evolved to tolerate precise levels of salinity and pH. When full of water that’s just the right chemistry, the lake might teem with 41,000 tons of brine shrimp over the course of a summer. For waterbirds, it’s like landing in a giant bowl of soup. “It’s a hyper-abundant, highly concentrated food supply,” says Senner. “It makes it much easier for them to fatten up.”

Brine flies, meanwhile, grow by the millions on the shoreline, laying their eggs on moistened rocks at the water’s edge and serving as an essential protein source for other birds.

But tinker with the water’s chemistry — make it too salty or too fresh, or too basic or too acidic — and neither shrimp nor flies will breed.

Each of the lakes in this part of Oregon differs slightly in terms of hydrology and ecology — some are spring-fed, some fill and dry in regular cycles, some are more saline, some more alkaline — and each hosts different types of bird food and habitat. Susan Haig, a wildlife biologist with the U.S. Geological Survey who has spent 22 years studying the Great Basin’s birds, describes the system as a “mosaic” of wetlands, easily visible from a birds’-eye view. Some years, she says, if there’s a lot of snowmelt, Lake Abert will be fresher and Summer Lake may be saltier, meaning the food available at each site shifts. “The birds really are aware of the changes in these salinities and in what’s available for food,” Haig says. “They adapt what they’re doing.”

Still, she says, “Abert is a kingpin in the system because it’s such a big food supply. If you lose Abert, it’s really not so good.”

  • The salt-crusted shore of Oregon’s Lake Abert.

    Eli Reichman
  • Birds, probably cliff swallows, fly over the narrows area of the Chewaucan River, where it transitions from the lower marsh into the Rivers End Ranch.

    Eli Reichman
  • Alkali flies, which can grow by the millions on the shoreline of Lake Albert.

    Ron Larson
  • Ranch hands from the ZX Ranch drive cattle across Oregon Highway 395.

    Eli Reichman
  • Sprinklers at the ZX Ranch, whose irrigation water comes from the overallocated Chewaucan River.

    Eli Reichman

Exactly what is responsible for the lakes’ demise is a matter of contention, and arguing about it turned ugly the first summer Abert dried up. A 2014 investigative report by the Oregonian and a TV segment on Oregon Public Broadcasting both came down hard on state agencies for effectively sitting by and watching a crucial shorebird migration stop disappear. Since then, the mere mention of Lake Abert by a reporter sets everyone on edge. I had to plead with some state and federal agencies just to get someone to talk to me.

At issue is the question of whether what you might call “natural” factors are to blame, or whether the problem is too many people taking too much water out of the river.

The “nature” argument goes like this: An extremely dry cycle, caused by either natural fluctuations or global warming (depending on whom you ask), brought far less snow to the mountains, and what little did fall melted out early, leaving less water in the river. “People don’t like it,” says Foster, “but this is just Mother Nature doing her thing.”

“We all had ancestors who went through the ’30s, when it was drier than it got during this drought,” says John O’Keefe, a local rancher and president of the Oregon Cattlemen’s Association, whose family has raised cattle in Lake County since the early 1900s. “So we tend to feel that it’s part of the natural cycle and not so much a permanent change.”

If you eliminated agriculture, O’Keefe says, “at least in these lakes around here, you wouldn’t really change the big picture. They’ll go down in the dry cycles, they’ll come up in the wet cycles.”

Kyle Gorman, the South Central Region manager for the Oregon Water Resources Department, is also in the “nature” camp. He points out that since the early 1900s, there’s been little change in “consumptive use” of Chewaucan River water. The number of acres legally allowed to be irrigated with surface water rights has barely grown: Today, it’s about 40,000; in 1900, it was around 37,000.

“The main thing is, climate is the huge driver on those systems,” Gorman says. Based on an established hydrological model created by the USGS, Gorman says, it makes sense that Abert was dry the last couple years. “All the things that we look at say that climate over the last decade has been significantly drier than previous decades,” he told me when I visited him at his office in Bend. This year, with above-average — though not spectacular — snowpack, “we’re seeing a remarkable recovery.”

No one denies this spring is looking much better than the last two. Ron Larson, a retired biologist who has been studying Abert, and who visited it in early May, a couple of weeks after I was there, called what he saw “good news.” The lake was less saline than normal, but Larson found small brine shrimp “present in good numbers” and patches of brine flies along the shores. His conclusion was a bit more measured than Gorman’s: “We will have to see how conditions develop to know if there is a recovery,” he wrote in an email. Still, he says he’s optimistic.

Larson belongs to the other camp, a loose collection of independent scientists who say upstream water diversions bear much of the blame. David Herbst, an aquatic ecologist who has spent years studying salt lakes in the Great Basin and internationally, argues that there is simply no way you can ignore the impact of water diversions. Drought is obviously playing a role, says Herbst, and climate change poses an increasing threat. But human water use is “orders of magnitude” more important. “We’re talking about almost complete loss of incoming water” to the lake, Herbst says. “A severe drought might cut water by 50 percent. We’re talking about 100 percent, year after year.”

Also in this camp is Johnnie Moore, geochemist, birder and professor emeritus at the University of Montana, who got interested in the plight of Lake Abert a few years ago. This winter, Moore published research concluding that the lake’s low water and high pH were directly caused by upstream water withdrawals. “Change in climate alone would not produce the recent low lake volumes and high salinities that have destroyed the brine shrimp and alkali fly populations and depleted shorebird use at Lake Abert,” he wrote.

Using satellite data to measure changes in the lake from 1972 to 2015, plus regional climate records, river flow records, salinity calculations, and other methods, Moore tried to “disentangle” direct human impacts from climate effects. The ecosystem, he concluded, “would have been stressed in recent droughts, but not decimated as it has been in the last two years.”

  • Biologist Craig Foster chronicles dramatic changes in bird populations at Lake Abert, tied to changing water levels.

    Eli Reichman
  • Shorebird expert Stanley Senner of the Audubon Society in coastal Oregon.

    Pat Senner
  • USGS senior scientist Susan Haig picks aquatic invertebrates out of a sampling net in preparation for genetic analysis.

    Kelly Huber/USGS

For all the squabbling over cause, though, it’s not clear the answer matters that much, at least in the immediate future. The river is legally over-allocated; that’s a fact. Global warming is changing the snowpack, so there will be less water flowing through the Chewaucan River into Lake Abert; this is also almost certainly a fact. Whichever factor is the smoking gun, both represent the system’s prevailing conditions. And neither one is going away anytime soon.

But only one of these factors — in theory, anyway — is alterable: irrigation. One possible way to keep Abert’s water levels, salinity and alkalinity stable during dry years would be to ask ranchers to use less water at certain times.

Aside from the obvious obstacles — livelihoods might be at stake, entire communities have grown up around existing water rights — there’s another complicating factor. Most local ranches grow native hay, the same types of grasses that grew here naturally, and during spring runoff, the ranchers flood their meadows, creating artificial wetlands. These wetlands teem with birds — ducks, geese, sandhill cranes, white-faced ibises. “The amount of waterfowl and waterbird use in the marshes is equally as stupendous or phenomenal as the amount of shorebird use on this lake,” says Foster. Roughly 80 percent of the pintail ducks on the Pacific Flyway, for instance, stop in these human-altered Chewaucan marshes. Filling Abert might mean sacrificing one set of birds for another.

Abert’s federal landlord, the Bureau of Land Management, is focused on the lake’s ecosystem and importance to migrating birds, and it has designated Lake Abert an “area of critical environmental concern.” What that does, explains Todd Forbes, the BLM’s field manager for its Lakeview Resource Area, “is make it easier for us to say, ‘This area of Abert Lake is really important to migratory birds, so everything else is going to take a backseat.’ ” That has meant saying no to a proposed sodium mining operation and a pumped-storage hydroelectric project. (The latter seems particularly absurd, given current lake levels.) It has also meant keeping the lake off-limits to everything from new roads to motorized recreation to windsurfing. But while the BLM’s designation is admirable, it’s also a bit misleading. Because, in fact, the BLM has absolutely zero jurisdiction over Lake Abert’s most important aspect: its water.

In the summer of 2010, high salinity, hot temperatures and little wind combined to kill brine shrimp, forming red streaks at the surface of Lake Albert.
Ron Larson

The agency in charge of that is the Oregon Water Resources Department. Yet the department does not measure how much water flows into the lake. There’s not even a gauge in place. “Because Abert doesn’t have a water right, there’s been no historic reason the water resources department would need to measure water into the lake,” says Gorman. “There’s no water right to protect. Historically, it hasn’t been at the forefront of our concerns about what’s going on in that area.”

Recently, partly in response to the controversy, the department installed gauges on seven diversions along the Chewaucan River. Gorman doubts that anyone is taking even close to what the water rights allow. But measuring it will be “an added bit of information so we can do a thorough analysis.”

The department also has a new grant program for something called “place-based funding.” This, Gorman suggests, might be a way to start exploring potential solutions. Like the BLM designation, though, it’s commendable but seems pretty flaccid considering what’s at stake. “You’d want to develop a hydrologic model from the lake and say, ‘If we lease some water in-stream’ ” — pay ranchers to leave water in Chewaucan River — “ ‘will that have an effect on the lake?’ When you talk about in-stream leasing and transfers, it’s always through a mutual or a voluntary basis, not a top-down approach from the department.” In other words, a broad-based group of local stakeholders would need to apply, through a competitive process, for money to fund research into possible ways to keep water in the lake. It doesn’t exactly sound user-friendly. So far, no one from the region has applied.

“It’s accurate to say, right now at least, that no one in a position of responsibility for water management seems to be actively trying to address the problem,” says Audubon’s Senner. He believes that the water department’s stated mission — which includes ensuring “the long-term sustainability of Oregon’s ecosystems, economy, and quality of life” — provides a possible opening. “We think that there is, if not the letter of the law, the intent of the law. The purpose of the department is to find solutions to problems like this.” He also believes, though, that protecting Lake Abert will require a collective effort by many groups. “It’s gonna take more than an environmental group, more than the local community— some kind of a multi-stakeholder effort to find an acceptable path forward.”

Haig, of the USGS, is hoping to spur such an effort. She has collected data from the past century for the western Great Basin’s entire system of wetlands — rainfall, snow, temperature, water levels in different lakes — and she hopes to use that information as the basis for just the sort of approach Gorman described. She is currently applying for grants to “get some stakeholders together” and start asking questions: What are you concerned about? What would you be willing to accept? “And then we’d take the data and do some modeling. Call them back when we have some answers, present what would happen as a result of different management actions.”

While she waits for funding, though, Haig is studying bugs. She’s intrigued by another crucial question: Could bird food move across the landscape?  Which wetlands are most important, and what might happen if they disappear?

In her government lab at Oregon State University in Corvallis, at the edge of the Cascades and 200 miles from Lake Abert as the phalarope flies, Haig showed me vials containing brine shrimp, brine flies, waterboatmen, and other water-dwelling invertebrates that her team collected in Lake County. Using genetic data, they’re trying to understand how and why these creatures occur in particular places. “If insects are capable of long-distance movements, maybe they can colonize new habitats or switch to water that wasn’t previously suitable,” Haig explains. Still, the particular composition of Lake Abert, she says, would be hard to replicate “unless some yet-to be-discovered hyper-saline source of water appears.” If Abert disappears, its soup of briny delicacies would likely vanish, too. And unfortunately, the next closest lakes  with similar salty conditions are Great Salt Lake and Mono Lake, “which are likely too far for birds to fly on their migration routes without starving.” 


American avocets at Lake Abert, a salty “terminal” lake in southern Oregon that has no outlet except through evaporation.
Eli Reichman

Summer Lake, northwest of Abert, is a wildlife refuge managed by the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. It has a webpage offering basic visitor information and touting it as “one of the best places in Oregon” for birdwatching. But look up Lake Abert, and mostly what you’ll find are bleak descriptions, using words like “forlorn” and “desolate.”

Rising along the western edge of Lake Abert and stretching for more than 30 miles is Abert Rim, a 2,500-foot fault scarp — a cliff caused by earth shifting along a fault — that gives the lake a dramatic backdrop but also hems it in, making it feel even more isolated. Parking his pickup at a pullout beneath the rim, Foster and I scrambled down the slope from the highway to the shore for a better look at the water level, the grebes, and the salt-crusted shoreline, which was lined with volcanic rocks and mats of discarded brine-fly exoskeletons. The wind drowned out what traffic there was on the road above us, and the desert sun did its best to heat a chilly afternoon. Standing there it felt like the whole world had vanished away.

Other than locals, a few government managers, a handful of scientists, and birders, not many people even know Lake Abert exists. And that may make conserving it a challenge. “Mono Lake got championed because it was just east of Yosemite, on a highway a lot of people go up and down,” says Herbst, the aquatic ecologist. “So they see it, and it’s a super-scenic place.”

But Lake Abert is the opposite, isolated in an isolated corner of the world. And it holds no real economic value, since the birds that use it aren’t the kind people hunt. “Coming to Lake Abert and looking at shorebirds is not a million-dollar industry,” jokes Foster.

What will it take to save Lake Abert, and the rest of Oregon’s terminal lakes? The current drought has left Mono Lake just 13 inches above an “ecologically precipitous” level, despite nearly 40 years of conservation efforts and a successful legal battle waged by a 20,000-member organization. And that Mono Lake-scale of dedication and support seems unlikely here, at least in the near term. Though the hour is late for Oregon’s terminal lakes, the will to act on their behalf is only just stirring. The National Audubon Society recently finished a new strategic plan that identifies Western water as a core theme for the next five years. But what exactly that means, and where the money will come from, and go to, is an open question.

The Intermountain West Joint Venture, a partnership-based migratory bird conservation program connected to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, is midway through a project using 30 years of satellite images to track how water moves across the landscape and through time — to “capture a picture of how the landscape breathes,” as Josh Vest, the program’s science coordinator, puts it. In the near future, Vest hopes the work will translate into “some strategic investments in conservation” in southern Oregon.

Although about 80 percent of the Intermountain West is public lands, about 70 percent of its emergent wetlands — marshes, wet meadows, prairie potholes — are on private land. “We’re trying to provide conservation strategies that can fit within these working landscapes,” Vest says.

In that respect, any mechanism for saving Abert will have to follow a path already blazed by a century of migratory bird conservation. “To create viable refuges, the FWS had to carve out new spaces within this irrigated, industrialized agricultural landscape,” wrote Syracuse University geographer Robert Wilson in his book Seeking Refuge: Birds and Landscapes of the Pacific Flyway. Drive along the Chewaucan marshes west of Lake Abert in the spring, and if you don’t know what you’re looking at, you could easily mistake it for a natural wetland system. Sandhill cranes wade elegantly through flooded meadows under the desert sun, in postcard-perfect marsh scenery. But the wetlands fill and drain with the help of human hands.

“People have settled and roads have gone through and all kinds of things have happened,” says rancher John O’Keefe. “So the manipulation we get from the diversion and spreading of the water and draining of the water is probably the closest thing to the natural flooding and receding that we could have in the current environment.” We were drinking coffee beneath the taxidermy — deer, bison, pronghorns — at the Adel Store, a shop, café, bar and general community hub in this Irish Catholic community of about 60 people. “To the extent that we interfere with that process, we’ll probably be moving away from the natural processes rather than back to ’em.” As we stood to leave, I offered to pay for our coffee, and O’Keefe laughed. “They don’t take money here,” he said.

Isolated as it seems, though, this tiny community depends on interconnected systems — highways, for instance, and a market for beef. The Pacific Flyway, too, is an interconnected system, its lakes and wetlands vital links in a chain. Over the past 150 years — the blink of an eye in the history of migratory bird species — many of what Wilson calls “the blue spots on a map” have disappeared. That has left a rusting chain, and a system pushed to the edge. “There’s very little redundancy now,” Wilson says. “The loss of Abert a hundred years ago might not have mattered. But now it does.”

Whether we can find a way to protect the lake — and other similarly threatened saline lakes in the Great Basin and around the world — may ultimately determine what sort of birds will fly overhead in the future.

“I had a lady call me; she said, ‘You don’t care about the shorebirds on Lake Abert,’ ” Foster told me as we took turns looking through binoculars at the grebes diving in the lake: duck-like, with black bodies and fuzzy-looking heads. “I said, ‘I do care! But Oregon’s got water laws, nobody’s violating water laws, nobody’s using more water than they’re allowed. It’s a drought year, we’ve got 49 inches of evaporation annually.’ And she said, ‘What are we gonna do?’ I said, ‘The only thing I know to do is get on your knees and pray.’ ”  

A flock of northern shovelers, along with a few American avocets and California gulls, takes flight from the shore of Lake Abert in the fall of 2011, a relatively wet year. Birds can number in the millions during peak migration months or in the thousands, if it’s dry.
Ron Larson

Hillary Rosner writes about science and the environment for Wired, National Geographic, Scientific American and other publications. She lives in Boulder, Colorado. 

This story was funded with reader donations to the High Country News Research Fund.


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