“The State Must Do More” — Lawmakers Weigh How to Protect Dry Lake Abert

By Rob Davis |  Jan. 25, 2022   |  The Oregonian

State lawmakers and environmental groups responded to an investigation by The Oregonian into the state’s failure to protect Lake Abert, Oregon’s only salt lake, by promising oversight hearings and calling for immediate action to restore the migratory bird stop that has run dry twice in the last eight years.

“The state must do more to fulfill its responsibilities to protect this ecologically vital public resource,” a coalition of seven environmental groups, including WaterWatch of Oregon, the National Audubon Society and Oregon Natural Desert Association, told Gov. Kate Brown in a letter Monday.

The developments follow a news investigation that revealed the Department of Environmental Quality shut down an employee in 2015 after she concluded that a state-subsidized reservoir project had worsened the lake’s decline. The employee, Amy Simpson, was directed to abandon her work after her preliminary analysis showed a private dam and reservoir on the River’s End Ranch, built next to Lake Abert with funding from the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife and others, had withheld billions of gallons of water from the lake, a death blow in dry years.

State Sen. Jeff Golden (D—Ashland), said The Oregonian’s reporting showed “a level of accountability from state agencies that’s nowhere close to what Oregonians expect and deserve.”

Golden, chair of the Senate Natural Resources and Wildfire Recovery Committee, said he intends to hold a committee hearing about Lake Abert’s decline during the forthcoming short legislative session, which begins Feb. 1, “to explore what happened and what’s needed to raise the bar.”

Rep. Ken Helm (D—Beaverton), chair of the House Water Committee, is also “concerned” about what’s happening at Lake Abert, a spokesperson said, and intends to solicit testimony from the Department of Environmental Quality, Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife and Oregon Water Resources Department in a hearing.

There’s bipartisan interest among lawmakers in addressing the lake’s decline. Rep. Mark Owens (R—Crane), vice chair of the House Water Committee, said what the investigation showed “is not a good thing.” Owens, a rancher and former Harney County commissioner, represents a district that borders Lake Abert.

“We need to work through it, the community needs to work through it and the state needs to figure out how they can support it,” he said.

It is unclear how far that interest extends. It was under Brown’s watch that the Department of Environmental Quality jettisoned its work on the lake in 2015. Brown, who previously declined comment about Lake Abert’s problems, saying the issue was “being monitored at the agency level,” didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Richard Whitman, Brown’s former top environmental policy adviser and the Department of Environmental Quality’s current director, canceled a scheduled Monday interview to discuss the agency’s response to the lake’s decline.

Lake Abert is primarily fed by precipitation that flows from the Chewaucan River, which starts in the Fremont-Winema National Forest east of Klamath Falls, passes through the town of Paisley and ends at the lake along U.S. 395. The lake ran dry in 2014 and again last year, the only times that has happened since the Dust Bowl years of the 1930s.

The environmental groups called for the state to immediately undertake “a comprehensive set of steps to ensure the protection and restoration of Lake Abert” because the lake provides internationally important habitat for hundreds of thousands of birds that use it for breeding and migration.

Among other things, they want the state to:

  • Seek water rights and funding to keep enough water in the Chewaucan River to ensure Lake Abert stays healthy.
  • Ensure water is released from the River’s End Ranch dam when lake levels are low, while protecting tribal resources in the area.
  • Generate far more useful data around the lake. No gauge exists in the lower Chewaucan River today. The lake’s water level and area groundwater levels have also been inconsistently tracked by the state or ignored altogether.
  • Update and publish the estimates of water flows into Lake Abert that Simpson began, accounting for the impacts of climate change.

A Department of Environmental Quality spokesperson didn’t respond to a question about whether Simpson’s work would be updated and finished.

The department “is concerned about the decline in lake levels at Lake Abert and the resulting effects on people and the environment,” said the spokesperson, Harry Esteve.

The reservoir isn”t solely responsible for Lake Abert’s plight, with irrigation withdrawals and dwindling precipitation driven by climate change contributing. Esteve did not acknowledge the reservoir’s role in response to questions from the newsroom, instead pointing to those other factors as the lake’s “principal causes of decline.”

No one tracks how much water ranches withdraw from the Chewaucan River, but for most of the last 85 years enough water has gotten to Lake Abert to meet ranchers’ needs and the lake’s.

“Oregon, along with all western states, has a legal system that grants rights to use water based on when that use first began,” Esteve said. “Neither the Oregon Legislature nor the federal government has given DEQ the authority to affect or alter this system.”

The department’s analysis in 2015, however, concluded that the government-subsidized reservoir next door had significantly contributed to Lake Abert’s decline. It found that Lake Abert had retained water during far drier times before the reservoir and dam were built on the River’s End Ranch in 1994.

Simpson, a natural resources specialist, shared those findings with her manager and others inside the department and proposed asking the Oregon Water Resources Department to require the reservoir to release more 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. Simpson, who later left the agency, said she was not given a reason and was told she couldn’t finalize her work.

The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW) , U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and 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.

Other state agencies with direct involvement in or oversight of the reservoir project declined comment on the newsroom’s investigation.

The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife downplayed the reservoir’s impact on the lake in a 2010 analysis, saying the reservoir was too small to affect the lake.

But Simpson raised “major concerns” about that analysis in a June 2015 email. And a University of Montana geosciences professor who has studied Lake Abert, Johnnie Moore, told the newsroom the department’s analysis was incorrect, ignoring the reservoir’s cumulative impact on the lake.

Curt Melcher, the state fish and wildlife director, didn’t respond to a call for comment.

Asked whether the Oregon Water Resources Department plans any specific action to address the issues raised by the investigation, a spokesperson said the agency “is reviewing the story” and evaluating next steps. The ranch has separate permits pending at the agency for storing water in the reservoir and withdrawing it.

A major hydropower project is also on the horizon near Lake Abert. PacifiCorp, the energy utility 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.

The four proposed reservoirs would each be larger than the River’s End Reservoir, and the company has not said whether it would apply for a new right to withdraw water from the Chewaucan River or purchase existing rights.

Sen. Michael Dembrow (D—Portland), a member of the Senate Environment Committee, said lawmakers have been told that the project can use surplus water in good water years.

Dembrow said that while he supports the project, he wants to see more certainty around the effects of PacifiCorp tapping into the Chewaucan River, calling Lake Abert’s decline “very troubling.”

“The article raises a number of questions,” he said, “and raises the bar on the agencies to provide that certainty.”

This article originally appeared in the Jan. 25, 2022, edition of The Oregonian. It was later updated on April 5, 2022. Photos by Ron Larson.