Shocking Images Show Plummeting Water Levels at Oregon Lake

Lake Abert in Oregon is yet another casualty of the longstanding drought that has scorched the western U.S. states over the past few years. It has dried up so much that not even shrimp can survive.

The salty lake has all but disappeared, reaching its driest levels in 2021 and 2022 since at least 1979, with NASA Landsat imagery recently showing how much the water levels have decreased over the last 20 years. Water levels dropped below the lowest possible measure on the gauge in 2019, and have not increased past this point since. On average, the lake is usually around 7 feet deep.

This has meant that the bird species—including snowy plovers, eared grebes, red-necked phalaropes, killdeer, black terns, American avocets, black-necked stilts and many others—that rely on Abert's populations of brine shrimp and flies for their essential food supplies on their migration routes have gone increasingly hungry.

lake abert on October 18, 2022
lake abert on October 19, 2002
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The drying of Lake Abert in Oregon between 2002 and 2022.

Lake Abert is a large, shallow lake in south-central Oregon, measuring around 15 miles long and 7 miles wide maximum. Normally, the lake gets the majority of its water from the Chewaucan River, which in turn fills from the snowmelt in mountain ranges nearby. The lake is intensely salty even at times of higher water, and is only habitable for tiny crustaceans called brine shrimp and many alkali flies on the surface.

These species provide a crucial food source for thousands of birds on the migratory journey between the far north of Alaska and Canada, to Mexico and South America.

The megadrought across the southwest U.S. has caused the driest 22-year period in the last 1,200 years. The resultant high temperatures and low flows into lakes like the Abert have led to water levels dropping, and as a result, the salinity levels of the remaining water have spiked.

Research published in the journal Earth and Space Science in early January, found that between 2001 and 2021, fewer days of snow cover and higher surface temperatures led to greater evaporation over Lake Abert, causing the water levels to drop.

"We haven't seen Lake Abert so low since the Dust Bowl [a period of severe dust storms in the 1930s]," Ron Larson, a retired biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and co-author of the paper, told NASA Earth Observatory. "There has been little or no inflow from the Chewaucan River, at the south end of the lake for the past two years."

Larson described in another paper how the salinity of the water has risen above 250 grams per liter (33.4 ounces per gallon) as of 2020, which was over 10 times more salty than it was in the early 2000s.

brine shrimp
Stock image of brine shrimp. The salinity levels of Lake Abert are so high that brine shrimp populations are dropping. iStock / Getty Images Plus

Brine shrimp and alkali flies in Lake Abert best thrive at salinity levels of 60 to 100 grams per liter (8 to 13.4 ounces per gallon), and they struggle once the lake water surpasses the aforementioned 250 grams per liter.

This growing lack of brine shrimp and alkali flies, i.e. food, has caused the bird population to crash: while there were usually over 250,000 birds visiting the lake each year, in 2021, there were only 11,000 passing through, according to the NASA Earth Observatory citing ecological data collected by volunteers for the East Cascades Audubon Society.

Additionally, the increasingly salty water has left the lake more prone to algal blooms of certain salt-loving micro-organisms called archaea, which turn the lake blood-red during their population explosions.

Similar drops in bird populations have occurred in the Great Salt Lake in Utah, also due to drought-driven increases in salinity and decreasing lake area. The largest saline lake in North America, the Great Salt Lake has been continually shrinking, and in November 2022 reached record-low water levels, measuring 4,188.2 feet above sea level.

These decreasing water levels are partly due to water re-allocations, with around 3.3 trillion liters of water (872 billion gallons) being diverted from the streams that would usually feed the Great Salt Lake.

"We estimate that consumptive use of water for agriculture, urban and other applications has decreased the [Great Salt] lake level 11 feet, and the recent drought has decreased it another 6 feet," Wayne Wurtsbaugh, professor emeritus of Watershed Sciences at Utah State University, previously told Newsweek. "The drought may be the start of the predicted decrease in precipitation and runoff due to global climate change. The increasing use of water is the result of the very high population growth."

Water withdrawals from Lake Abert have also exacerbated the drying problem, as water from the Chewaucan basin that would normally fill the lake is often used for crop irrigation nearby, data from NASA's OpenET project shows.

"We know the pressures on this lake are probably only going to get more intense in the coming years and decades," Johnnie Moore, an emeritus geoscience professor at the University of Montana, told NASA Earth Observatory. "The key thing is that we develop better management tools to ensure that this ecosystem continues to exist."

"Without water withdrawals, the lake would have maintained annual mean salinities mostly within the optimal range of brine shrimp and alkali fly growth."

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