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The disappearance of Lake Abert, Oregon’s only salt lake

A thick crust of salt remains after most of Lake Abert dried up in 2014.
Vince Patton
A thick crust of salt remains after most of Lake Abert dried up in 2014.

Southern Oregon’s Lake Abert is a stopover for tens of thousands of migratory birds that use it to rest and fatten up on bugs and brine shrimp. But in 2021 it dried up. JPR’s Erik Neumann spoke with Rob Davis, an investigative reporter at the Oregonian, about what happened to Lake Abert last year.

Rob Davis: In 2021 Lake Abert in south central Oregon, this huge, expansive salt lake, Oregon’s only salt lake, went dry.

Erik Neumann: What's causing the lake to shrink?

RD: Well, there are a variety of factors. You've got ranches in the area that pull more water out of the Chewaucan River than goes in every year. 2021 was one of the driest years, it was actually the driest year on record since 1979. But then there is also a dam and reservoir at the end of the Chewaucan River. Lake Abert was the end of the Chewaucan River. It's not anymore. The River's End Ranch dam and reservoir are. They were built in the mid 1990s in 1994 by the landowner at the time with financial assistance from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife and Ducks Unlimited.

EN: In your article, you talked about how the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality is the state regulator in this situation. What have they been doing to conserve the lake?

RD: Nothing. We wrote about it in 2014, identified that there was something mysterious that was leading to the decline of Lake Abert. There were dry periods before. Lake Abert didn't go empty. And actually, the years leading up to 2014 when it did go empty were not as dry as years previous, when Lake Abert had retained its water. So, we wrote that story, put it in the front page, and Oregon DEQ started doing some analysis to figure out what was going on in that system. An employee pinpointed one of the culprits as the River's End reservoir and dam, proposed that more water be released to Lake Abert in dry years, and was called into her boss’ office after a managerial meeting of top management from five state agencies and was told in her words, she said, ‘My boss told me: all work must stop.’ And she asked for a reason and was told it was a managerial decision and was later told 'don't write any emails about controversial topics.' And so, her work was abandoned in mid-late 2015. Since then, nobody at any state agency has done anything to ensure even an extra drop of water gets to Lake Abert.

EN: Why would the DEQ not investigate this issue?

RD: It has been well-documented in my reporting here as an investigative reporter covering the environment for the last nine years that Oregon DEQ has taken, historically, a very timid approach to regulating the environment.

EN: There's been some Congressional interest in studying Lake Abert, including from Oregon Sen. Jeff Merkley. Is there anything else that you can say about the future of the lake and where it might be headed?

RD: That's a great question. There is an effort in Congress to award $25 million over five years to study saline lake ecosystems. They are in peril across the West. One scientist that I talked to who has studied Lake Abert said letting water out of the Rivers End dam, letting water out of the reservoir, is not going to magically fix what's going on with the lake. But, he said, when you have a lake that is in deep trouble, anything that you can do that helps is a good thing.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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.