Oregon’s Lake Abert is “In Deep Trouble.” The State Shut Down Its Effort to Figure Out Why

By Rob Davis  |  Jan. 16, 2022  |  The Oregonian

When Oregon’s only saltwater lake mysteriously dried up in 2014, turning a vibrant landscape teeming with migratory birds into a desiccated, abandoned salt pan, state environmental regulators mobilized.

Lake Abert, a 64-square-mile lake in south central Oregon’s high desert, had gone almost completely dry for the first time since the Dust Bowl years of the 1930s. Low precipitation and hotter temperatures driven by climate change loomed as causes. But the region had experienced drier years before without the Great Basin lake disappearing.

After The Oregonian featured the lake’s unexplained decline on its front page in July 2014, Amy Simpson, a natural resources specialist with Oregon’s Department of Environmental Quality, began to unravel the mystery.

Nearly eight years later, nothing has changed.

No state agency has ensured even a single extra drop of water reaches Lake Abert.

The lake again ran dry last year, turning too salty to support the brine shrimp and alkali flies that typically feed hundreds of thousands of migratory birds at the important stop on an extensive network of habitats called the Pacific Flyway.

Newly obtained records and interviews by The Oregonian reveal one reason why the state has not come to the lake’s aid: Simpson’s boss shut down her analysis in 2015, just as she began making uncomfortable conclusions.

Simpson estimated that the River’s End Reservoir, constructed in 1994 with government subsidies immediately upstream from Lake Abert, had kept billions of gallons of water from reaching the lake. In a dry year like 2014, the difference was a death blow.

She shared those preliminary findings with her manager and others inside the department and proposed asking another state agency to require the reservoir to release water. But Simpson said her manager, Steve Mrazik, called her into his office and abruptly halted her efforts after a summer 2015 meeting of high-ranking officials from five state agencies, including the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, which helped build the reservoir.

“I stopped working on this project because my manager told me to stop working on it,” Simpson, an engineer who left the environmental agency in 2018, told The Oregonian. “I asked why, but was told it was a managerial decision and was not given a reason.”

Simpson said she asked to finish analyzing the reservoir’s impact on the lake but was told by Mrazik “all work must stop.”

Mrazik didn’t respond to questions from The Oregonian. A Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) spokesperson, Harry Esteve, said in an email the agency decided “at the time that there was no significant action we could take.”

The agency’s abandonment of Lake Abert adds to the history of neglect at the remote lake, providing another example of the DEQ’s timid approach to protecting Oregon’s environment. Political attention to the lake’s plight has been scant, even though it briefly attracted the interest of then-Gov. John Kitzhaber.

Michael Blumm, an environmental law professor at Lewis and Clark Law School in Portland, said state agencies have the authority to help the lake. Oregon’s long-standing failure to do so, he said, is “resulting in an ecological disaster.”

“It’s a tragedy,” Blumm said. “There were plenty of opportunities to save the lake and the state walked away from them.”

The reservoir isn’t solely responsible for Lake Abert’s decline. The precipitation that feeds the lake has dwindled. Last year was the driest since at least 1979. Ranches upstream long ago laid claim to river water that would reach the lake to instead irrigate crops like alfalfa. Still, scientists who study the lake say the reservoir has harmed Lake Abert and should release more water to it.

“When you have a lake that is in deep trouble,” said Johnnie Moore, an emeritus geosciences professor at the University of Montana, “anything you can do to make it better is a good choice to make.”

Lake Abert may be a lake. But it doesn’t have a legal right to exist.

In arid country where ranchers have grown alfalfa and raised cows for more than a century, water rights belong to those who first claimed them.

Lake Abert’s water starts as snowfall in the Fremont-Winema National Forest east of Klamath Falls. Snow melts into the Chewaucan River, winds down through the town of Paisley and ends at the lake along U.S. 395. The 53-mile Chewaucan is the lake’s major source. The shallow lake, which is just a few feet deep, has no outlet.

The river’s water is spoken for — and then some. Area ranches have legal rights to draw more water out of the river than nature puts in each year, supplementing their needs with a dwindling supply of groundwater estimated to have plummeted 20 feet since the 1980s.

Still, for most of the last 85 years, enough water has gotten to Lake Abert to keep its ecosystem functioning, its saltwater shrimp and flies thriving, the migratory birds fed. The system could meet ranchers’ needs and the lake’s.

That changed after the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW), U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) and the nonprofit Ducks Unlimited helped build the private dam and reservoir on the River’s End Ranch. The nonprofit and ODFW each put $50,000 toward the $500,000 project that dammed the end of the Chewaucan River, while the federal service kicked in $35,000. The groups wanted to restore marsh habitat thought to have existed a century earlier.

The Department of Environmental Quality required the ranch to constantly release water to Lake Abert and to stop withdrawing water for irrigation if the lake dropped too low.

But the project was a catastrophe. State and federal agencies approved the reservoir’s construction despite surveys showing it would inundate tribal artifacts and graves that belonged to the Northern Paiute.

After human bones were found sticking out of the earthen dam, built by a previous owner with dirt from a burial ground, the agencies scattered. The Fish and Wildlife Service and Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife backed away from agreements to help manage the reservoir. Requirements to send water to Lake Abert were abandoned in 1995, within a year of the reservoir’s completion.

Destroying archeological sites had the ironic effect of allowing the reservoir to operate with far fewer restrictions than originally intended, a state water official noted in a 2014 memo.

Simpson’s research showed that before the reservoir existed, Lake Abert sagged in dry years but didn’t run empty. About half of Lake Abert was still covered in water after a five-year dry spell ending in 1992, just before the reservoir was built.

But the lake was nearly dry in 2014 even though the preceding five years were wetter.

The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife says the reservoir, which can hold 1,800 acre feet of water, is too small to affect the far larger lake, which can hold 400,000 acre feet or more in wet years (an acre foot is enough water to cover an acre with one foot of water, or about 325,000 gallons).

Releasing more water from the reservoir would increase lake levels by less than a quarter-inch, the wildlife agency concluded in a 2010 report, while harming native redband trout in the reservoir.

“The volume of water available via River’s End is insignificant relative to typical Lake Abert volumes,” Michelle Dennehy, an ODFW spokesperson, said in an emailed response to questions from The Oregonian. She said it wasn’t realistic “to try to identify a single point in the system as being the ‘problem.'”

But the dam blocks water from reaching the lake for months at a time, Simpson’s research showed. The reservoir collects water that then vanishes, lost through leaks, evaporation or through its use for irrigation, which is not tracked in Oregon.

The reservoir may be small, but its impact to Lake Abert accumulates year after year, said Moore, the University of Montana professor. He said the ODFW analysis was incorrect and overly simplistic, ignoring the reservoir’s long-term effects on Lake Abert.

“It’s safe to say, ‘You build reservoirs, you lose water,'” Moore said. “It withholds a bunch of water out of the lake in the long run. It’s additive.”

Simpson also raised “major concerns” in a June 2015 email about mistakes in ODFW’s analysis. Her boss later emailed with instructions to discuss “matters that may be controversial or politically sensitive” only by phone or in person — not by email. That was especially critical for issues drawing attention from the media, Legislature or other government agencies, Mrazik told Simpson.

“DEQ’s success as a regulatory agency depends on it,” Mrazik wrote in the Sept. 2, 2015, email with no subject line.

A Department of Environmental Quality spokesperson said it is not uncommon for managers “to advise staff on the appropriate channels of communications, especially on sensitive topics.”

Simpson had already drafted comments for the DEQ to submit to the Oregon Water Resources Department urging it to reinstate requirements for the reservoir to release water to Lake Abert. The water agency was weighing whether to finalize the reservoir’s water rights permit. A federal agency, the , sent comments expressing concern about the reservoir’s impact on the lake.

The DEQ didn’t submit any. The water department still has not finalized the permit.

A DEQ spokesperson said the comments went beyond the agency’s “official scope and authority.”

Lisa Brown, an attorney for WaterWatch of Oregon, said no statute prevents DEQ from submitting comments or consulting with another state agency about a permit’s environmental impact.

The state’s failure to require water releases to the lake, Brown said, “is one more piece of that chain of broken promises by these agencies to protect the lake and the area around the lake.”

The dam and reservoir on the River’s End Ranch are part of 5,000 acres now owned by Wayne Clark of Novato, California, according to business and tax records. The holdings are valued at more than $4 million, Lake County tax records show.

Clark, a former hairstylist, founded The Cricket Co., a salon products company, an archived company website shows. He declined comment on the DEQ analysis.

“I don’t care what you write,” Clark said. He subsequently hung up on a reporter.

Ranch manager Dave Ross said last year was so dry that even if the reservoir had been ordered to release water, it wouldn’t have been able to.

“We have some major, serious water problems that are severe,” Ross said. “The water tables are dropping. It’d take years before there’s going to be enough water if everything is normal.”

When Simpson’s work began inside the Department of Environmental Quality, the agency’s leaders knew they had an important audience: then-Gov. Kitzhaber, who controlled the department’s governing board.

“The Gov’s Office is very interested in issues involving Lake Abert,” the agency’s top lobbyist wrote in an October 2014 email, three months after The Oregonian story. “We will need to communicate directly with them.”

Kitzhaber said in an interview that he wanted to find a balanced solution for Lake Abert, building on progress on water shortage issues in the Klamath Basin two hours west.

“It’s a little body of water, but it’s part of a huge and really stressed ecosystem,” Kitzhaber said. He called Lake Abert’s decline “tragic,” saying it merited a high-level conversation to unravel the problems “if for no other reason than we’re going to keep seeing this over and over and over again as climate reduces our snowfall and snowpacks.”

Other salt lakes in the West, including Utah’s Great Salt Lake, are also in decline. Warmer temperatures driven by climate change and increasing demands for water are drying wetlands, said Moore, the University of Montana scientist, leaving less refuge for migratory birds throughout the region.

“It’s not a pretty picture,” Moore said. The shrimp and flies that attract birds like Wilson’s phalaropes, black-necked stilts and willets to Lake Abert are adapted to survive an occasional dry year. But, he said, “if the lake stays dry for long periods of time, you can wipe out the ecosystem.”

Congress is debating legislation to help research the problem. Sen. Jeff Merkley (D—Oregon) and Sen. Mitt Romney (R—Utah) have cosponsored a bill to award $25 million over five years to the U.S. Geological Survey to study saline lake ecosystems including Lake Abert.

If approved, the spending would deepen scientific understanding of Lake Abert and other salt lakes and provide recommendations for how they could be better managed, said Marcelle Shoop, the National Audubon Society’s saline lakes program director.

“It would be the first time the federal government had a role in looking at all of these lakes and coordinating across the region,” Shoop said.

Kitzhaber resigned in 2015 before he could help Lake Abert. Environmental groups asked for a meeting with his natural resources adviser, Richard Whitman, now the DEQ director, to discuss Lake Abert two weeks before his resignation. They said they received no response. Addressing the lake’s problems fell to Gov. Kate Brown.

A spokesperson for Brown declined comment, saying “this issue is being monitored at the agency level.”

In California, where advocates rallied around the saltwater Mono Lake in the 1980s after water diversions to Los Angeles caused its decline, the state supreme court ruled that the lake’s levels were a public trust that needed to be balanced against Los Angeles’ water needs. That paved the way for a management plan designed to keep water in the lake east of Yosemite National Park. No such effort has been made with Lake Abert.

Since Lake Abert has no water rights, Dwight French, an Oregon Water Resources Department administrator, said he asked the Department of Fish and Wildlife several years ago whether it would be interested in applying for a right to keep water in the Chewaucan River to benefit the lake. Other water rights holders in the region would have priority, French said, but such a step “would represent an aspirational goal.”

The Department of Fish and Wildlife has not applied. The agency gets about a third of its budget from hunting and fishing licenses and has long drawn criticism from environmental groups that it prioritizes game species over conservation. The River’s End Ranch has advertised the reservoir as an exclusive fishing and duck hunting destination, calling it the “largest private lake in Oregon.”

An ODFW spokesperson said the reservoir has benefited both game and non-game species, while the state Water Resources Department said in a 2014 memo that birds would be more likely to benefit if water made its way to Lake Abert.

The ODFW spokesperson said the agency doesn’t believe seeking rights would allow water to reach Lake Abert in the dry years when it’s needed because ranches would take it first. The department “must be judicious with its resources,” the spokesperson said.

Meanwhile, major water-dependent hydropower projects are on the horizon for Lake Abert.

PacifiCorp, the utility company owned by Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway, has filed preliminary plans with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to explore building two 500-megawatt “pumped water storage projects” near Lake Abert.

Each project would build two reservoirs at different elevations and fill them with water from the Chewaucan River — for a total of four new reservoirs. Water from the upper reservoirs would rush downhill during times of day when electricity prices are higher. The water would be pumped back uphill when energy costs are cheaper.

Drew Hanson, a PacifiCorp spokesperson, said it was too soon to say whether the company would apply for a new right to withdraw water from the Chewaucan River or purchase existing rights.

All four new reservoirs would be larger than the River’s End Reservoir.

The potential effects on Lake Abert haven’t been studied.

Thick smoke from the growing Bootleg Fire blotted the skies over Lake Abert as Ron Larson, a retired former Fish and Wildlife Service biologist, drove along the shoreline in July.

Larson was checking the lake’s water levels and bird populations, a trip he makes monthly, filling in gaps left by a state government that has paid little attention.

Larson said he has grown frustrated after trying for years to convince Oregon’s state agencies to protect Lake Abert.

“Those agencies, all they need is the slimmest excuse not to show interest in natural resources that are being impacted,” Larson said. “East of the Cascades, it’s still the Wild West. People do what they want to do with the environment and the agencies just turn their back.”

Through the haze, Larson looked for the bird life that typically blankets the lake. In 2013, an estimated one-third of the world’s Wilson’s phalaropes were spotted there, the small, long-legged shorebirds fattening up before flying non-stop to winter in South America.

“It is just a spectacle,” Larson said, “when you get 200,000 phalaropes out there twisting and turning, they’re everywhere across the surface of that lake, it’s just incredible.”

Instead, Larson could see the lake was so low and salty that a bacterial bloom had turned what little water remained blood red, like a wound cut into the pastel desert landscape.

Few birds were there, the lowest numbers on record, just an estimated 2,000 American avocets.

They were struggling to find food.

This article originally appeared in the Jan. 16, 2022, edition of The Oregonian. Banner photo by Ron Larson, footer photo by Rob Davis.