Lake Abert: A natural jewel in peril

This spectacular Southeastern Oregon lake 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 to the Great Salt Lake in importance to migratory birds in the Great Basin. More than 80 shorebird and waterbird species have historically used Lake Abert. It 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. When healthy, birds feast in the lake's saline waters. Yet, when deprived of necessary freshwater inflows from Chewaucan River, salinity level increases result in lack of brine shrimp and other food to support birds. In fact, water conditions are so dire that the lake has gone dry twice in the last eight years.


Saving Lake Abert

WaterWatch has been working for many years to bring much needed attention and action to conserve this internationally significant lake. We are 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 to find solutions to sustain the lake and the many birds that rely upon it.

In-depth reporting by The Oregonian in early 2022, “Oregon’s Lake Abert is ‘in deep trouble.’ The state shut down its effort to figure out why” (January 16), brought much needed attention to the state’s failures to address the lake’s plight. Another story followed: " `The state must do more.' Lawmakers weigh how to protect dry Lake Abert" (January 25 2022). These stories prompted a legislative hearing and commitment by the state to address the lake: “In turnaround, Oregon agencies say they’re ‘ready to work together’ for Lake Abert solution.” (February 21 2022).

On January 24, 2022, WaterWatch and six other organizations (Oregon Natural Desert Association, Oregon Lakes Association, Audubon Society of Portland, East Cascades Audubon Society, Klamath Audubon Society and the National Audubon Society) wrote to Oregon’s Governor and the leaders of three key state agencies requesting the state take immediate action to protect and restore Lake Abert. Our letter requests 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 provide much needed studies of the hydrology of saline lakes in the Great Basin to be led the US Geological Service. Building this foundational understanding is a critical piece of long-term management and conservation of these lakes.

We are actively working with our conservation allies to maintain positive momentum for Lake Abert, ensure that state agencies fulfill 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.


Click photo to see WaterWatch Staff Attorney Lisa Brown, featured in this 2015 episode, "Lake Abert dries up," of Oregon Field Guide by Oregon Public Broadcasting. 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."