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Bill to study disappearing salt lakes like Oregon’s Lake Abert is being proposed in Congress

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

A threatened Oregon lake that’s so salty it’s considered “hypersaline” could benefit from recently proposed legislation in the House of Representatives. It’s aimed at monitoring Lake Abert in Lake County and others, like Utah’s Great Salt Lake, that provide habitat for migratory birds.

The water and brine shrimp in Lake Abert 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.

The legislation, 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 waterbirds 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.

Erik Neumann is JPR's news director. He earned a master's degree from the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism and joined JPR as a reporter in 2019 after working at NPR member station KUER in Salt Lake City.