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Outside » Natural World

Goodbye, Lake Abert?

Little known, and unfortunately and ironically, dying of thirst

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Lake Abert is dying, if not already dead.

But unfortunately, unless you are a limnologist, serious birder or just love Oregon for everything it has, Lake Abert doesn't seem to matter.

To begin with, Lake Abert, Oregon's only saltwater lake, is a desolate place that (once was) a popular stopover for migratory waterfowl. It is located near the little-known town of Valley Falls along Highway 395, in south central Oregon. The Chewaucan River flows into Abert Lake, but no water flows out, so the minerals have been concentrating in the lake since it was born in the Ice Age. Consequently, the water is very salty and alkaline but supports/supported an enormous population of brine shrimp and migratory birds.

The lake was approximately 15 miles long and seven miles wide at its widest point, and was named in honor of Colonel John James Abert, who headed the Corps of Topographical Engineers for 32 years, during which time he organized the mapping of the American West by explorer, John C. Fremont (aka, "The Pathfinder") when he and Kit Carson were wandering around Central Oregon in 1847. 

There are no fish in the alkaline and salt waters of the lake; however, its dense population of brine shrimp (once) supported a thriving brine shrimp business. The lake is/was also an important stop-over for thousands of migratory shore birds, including avocets and black-necked stilts using the Pacific Flyway.

But the brine shrimp population, as well as the brine flies and other organisms with them have/and are dying out, certainly upsetting to the once profitable business operating at Lake Abert—collecting and selling of brine shrimp, owned by Keith Kreuz and his wife, Lynn, who were at it for over 35 years.

Moreover, it is an ecological disaster as we speak. 

After Lake Abert breathes its final gasps, clouds of alkali and salt dust will cover the surrounding countryside and be hard on anything living—plant or animal. The loss of food to the thousands of shorebirds, gulls, avocets, stilts, willets, and "peeps" will be disastrous. As we speak, the remaining water is blood red from bacteria and dead brine shrimp, releasing a red dye. Fresh water lakes are dwindling throughout the west, and the death of Lake Abert will only add more problems for thousands of migratory birds.

So, we have to ask, who or what is killing Lake Abert, and why? 

You won't believe this, but the State of Oregon is apparently doing it. Why? They just don't want to talk about it, but the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife is diverting water from the Chewaucan River that should go into Lake Abert, for a fish hatchery to raise red-band trout. That seems to be it. 

Oh, sure, there are several ranches along the Chewaucan that have been using the river for irrigation since your grandfather was a gleam in his grandfather's eye. The lake seems to barely tolerate these legal water users, but ODFW's hatchery may be the last straw in the gigantic mud puddle that's Lake Abert today.

Frank Conte, a retired OSU limnology professor living in Sisters, who founded the High Lakes Aquatic Alliance, Ron Larson, retired USF&W limnologist, and others who love the lake, want to set a team to work studying the whys and wherefores of the disappearing lake—a project that should be funded by the State of Oregon, but it was turned down. It seems no one in our state government wants to help the dying lake.

During the Pleistocene epoch, a time that covered the last of the Ice Age, widespread areas of south-central Oregon were covered by sprawling lakes and wetlands, and the arid land around Lake Abert of today was once lush. As the last Ice Age ended, rain and runoff from melting snow filled the lowlands throughout that part of the Great Basin, creating Lake Chewaucan, an immense freshwater lake that covered 461 square miles at depths of up to 375 feet—today, Lake Abert and Summer Lake are all that's left.

Unfortunately, it appears the Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board is only interested in fish, not the survival of Oregon's only salt lake. It gave up to $1.3 million for the fish project, without apparently giving thought how water diversion from the Chewaucan would affect the lake's welfare. The concerned scientists who wanted to conduct the limnological and wildlife study at Lake Abert were only asking for a $128,000 grant.

(written with help from Prof. Frank Conte)

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