A new program aimed at improving the health of imperiled salt lakes across the American West is moving forward, thanks to legislation passed by Congress this week.
Saline lakes are vitally important for migratory birds, but much of this habitat is disappearing, including Utah’s Great Salt Lake and Oregon’s Lake Abert.
The legislation would direct agencies including the U.S. Geological Survey and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to work with local land managers, academics and nonprofits to monitor salt lakes. The rapidly drying Great Salt Lake has garnered headlines recently because of shrinking wildlife habitat and the threat of airborne heavy metals like arsenic in the exposed lakebed. Southern Oregon’s lesser-known Lake Abert also provides a unique refuge for birds during their migration to South America.
“We’ve got some scientists who’ve said that it’s second only in importance for shorebirds to Great Salt Lake,” said Marcelle Shoop, the director of the Audubon Society’s saline lakes program. “That’s pretty important when you look at the size of Great Salt Lake and how many birds it supports, thinking of the importance of Lake Abert for shorebirds in that context.”
The Oregon-California border is also home to Goose Lake, another ephemeral saline lake.
If signed into law by President Biden, the legislation would establish a program to monitor the hydrology and stressors on saline lake ecosystems in Great Basin states. According to Shoop, it would provide a “scientific foundation” needed to better manage and conserve these habitats.
The bipartisan legislation authorizes $5 million per year for the next five years towards this goal. It was cosponsored by Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., Rep. Jared Huffman, D-Ca., Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, and Rep. Blake Moore, R-Utah.
“Public waters like the Great Basin saline lakes are vital for the futures of wildlife and the communities whose livelihoods depend on them. How we manage them, especially in the face of climate change and severe drought, should be led by science,” Rep. Huffman wrote in a release after the legislation’s passage this week in the Senate.
Tools to measure and gauge water in Lake Abert and its source, the Chewaucan River, have been absent for years, according to Shoop. Still, the legislation stipulates that the saline lakes program won’t affect interstate water compacts or valid water rights in the Great Basin. She says collecting this information will hopefully enable better decision making by water rights agencies and water rights holders while benefiting these unique habitats.
“Each one of these saline lake ecosystems is really very important in and of itself,” she said. “But as a network or ecological web of habitats, it’s essentially irreplicable when it comes to migratory birds.”