Science & Environment

Oregon’s Abert Lake keeps shrinking, becoming so salty Congress is taking notice

By Erik Neumann (Jefferson Public Radio)
Oct. 5, 2021 11:40 p.m.

The water and brine shrimp in Lake Abert in South Central Oregon provide a critical feeding stopover for up to 83,000 migratory birds like ducks, geese and shorebirds each year on the Pacific Flyway as they journey between Alaska and Mexico.

But the salt lake is so low this year it could become too salty for wildlife.

View of Abert Lake from atop Abert Rim, by Alexandra Cravener and Karen Austin, BLM, 2016.

View of Abert Lake from atop Abert Rim, by Alexandra Cravener and Karen Austin, BLM, 2016.

JPR / U.S. Bureau of Land Management

A bill in the U.S. House, which came out in late September, would set out to study the hydrology of saline lakes in the Great Basin, including Lake Abert, and the migratory birds that depend on them. It would include a $5 million annual appropriation for six years.


“This is the first time, really, that I’ve seen much attention paid to it and it’s desperately needed, especially in the face of climate change right now,” says Susan Haig, a courtesy professor of wildlife ecology at Oregon State University who has worked on water birds conservation issues in Oregon and California for 25 years.

Like the nearby Klamath Basin, Haig says, Lake Abert is very low this year. That’s on top of a long-term warming trend that has reduced water flowing into Great Basin wetlands.

That can make an already salty lake so saline that the brine shrimp that birds feed on can’t even survive there.

“If we lose those wetlands, we are going to lose the flyway, the Pacific Flyway, which is a huge, huge loss to biodiversity and to this part of the world,” Haig says.

The House legislation is a companion to an identical Senate bill, proposed last April, that was sponsored by Oregon Senator Jeff Merkley and Senator Mitt Romney from Utah, home of the Great Salt Lake which is also shrinking fast.

The Senate legislation would provide $25 million to monitor and assess wildlife in the Great Basin, create partnerships to conduct studies and find solutions to preserve habitat and develop outreach to create water budgets to help migratory birds.