Lake Abert: A Natural Jewel in Peril

This spectacular lake in Southeastern Oregon provides internationally significant habitat and refuge for birds as a vital stop on the Pacific Flyway. It is Oregon’s largest saline lake and sixth-largest lake, and second only to the Great Salt Lake in importance to migratory birds in the Great Basin, including more than 80 shorebird and waterbird species.

Lake Abert is particularly important to Wilson’s Phalaropes, American Avocets, and North American Eared Grebes. Roughly one-third of Oregon’s Snowy Plovers nest and raise their young along Lake Abert’s shores.

Under normal circumstances, healthy bird populations feast in the lake’s saline waters. But when deprived of necessary freshwater inflows from Chewaucan River, salinity levels increase, resulting in a lack of brine shrimp and other food to support birds. Water conditions have become so dire at the the lake that it has gone dry twice since 2014.


For years WaterWatch has been working to bring attention and action to conserve this internationally-significant lake. We are currently engaged in water permitting matters at Rivers End Ranch reservoir — formed by a channel spanning dam across the Chewaucan River just above where it flows into Lake Abert — to increase inflows to the lake, and are working with conservation partners to promote increased understanding of the lake’s hydrology and find solutions to sustain the lake and the many birds that rely upon it.

In-depth reporting by The Oregonian in early 2022 included several excellent articles by journalist Rob Davis, linked below, that brought much-needed attention to the state’s failures to address the lake’s plight, and prompted a legislative hearing and commitment by the state to address the concerns.

On Jan. 24, 2022, WaterWatch and six allied organizations, including the Oregon Natural Desert Association (ONDA), Oregon Lakes Association, East Cascades Audubon Society, Klamath Audubon Society, Portland Audubon (renamed the Bird Alliance of Oregon in early 2024) and the National Audubon Society wrote to Governor Kate Brown and the leaders of three key state agencies requesting the state take immediate action to protect and restore Lake Abert. The letter requested 12 actions that, taken together, will begin to protect and restore this critically important lake.

Federal legislation, introduced in 2021 by Senators Jeff Merkley (D-Oregon) and Mitt Romney (R-Utah), would similarly provide needed studies of the hydrology of saline lakes in the Great Basin to be led by the U.S. Geological Service. Building this foundational understanding is a critical piece of long-term management and conservation of these remarkable saline lakes.

We are continuing to work with conservation allies to maintain positive momentum for Lake Abert, ensure state agencies fulfill their data collection and regulatory commitments (including at Rivers End Ranch), and advocate for a path forward that sustains this amazing lake and the birds that rely upon it.

WaterWatch staff attorney Lisa Brown appears in this 2015 episode of Oregon Field Guide, courtesy of Oregon Public Broadcasting (OPB). Brown says the state needs “to make it right and go back and do the things they said they would do to protect Lake Abert.”

Studies and Reports

· Donnelly et al. 2019. Climate and Human Water Use Diminish Wetland Networks Supporting Continental Waterbird Migration

· Haig et al. 2019. Climate-Altered Wetlands Challenge Waterbird Use and Migratory Connectivity in Arid Landscapes.

· Larson and Larson. 2011. Salt Lake in the High Desert

· Larson and Eilers. 2014. Introducing Terminal Lakes

· Larson and Eilers. 2014. Lake Abert, Oregon: A Terminal Lake Under Extreme Water Stress

· Larson et al. 2016. Recent Desiccation-Related Ecosystem Changes at Lake Abert, Oregon: A Terminal Alkaline Salt Lake.

· Moore, J. N. 2016. Recent Desiccation of Western Great Basin Saline Lakes: Lessons from Lake Abert, Oregon

· Senner et al. 2018. Salt Lake Under Stress: Relationships Among Birds, Water Levels, and Invertebrates at a Great Basin Saline Lake