U.S. Senate Introduces New Program to Assess and Monitor Saltwater Lake Ecosystems in the West

SALT LAKE CITY—Today, recognizing the ecological and economic benefits of saline (salt) lakes in the American West, U.S. Senator Jeff Merkley (D-OR) and U.S. Senator Mitt Romney (R-UT) introduced the Saline Lake Ecosystems in the Great Basin States Program Act of 2020. Building upon scientific findings that saline lakes across the West provide interconnected bird habitats—as documented in Audubon’s 2017 Water and Birds in the Arid West report—this legislation will establish a program within the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) to assess, monitor, and benefit the hydrology of saline lakes in the Great Basin and the migratory birds and other wildlife, that depend on them.

These saline lakes, such as Lake Abert in Oregon, Great Salt Lake in Utah and others, as well as their water sources, benefit millions of people and their businesses, livelihoods, and quality of life. Saline lakes also provide critical breeding, stopover, and feeding sites for millions of migratory birds. There is no other network of habitats in the West that can meet the needs of millions of shorebirds and waterbirds.

“Our lands and waters—including our saline lakes like Lake Abert and Goose Lake—are integral to the futures of countless animals and migratory birds, as well as Oregonians’ quality of life and livelihoods,” said Senator Merkley. “We have to protect these ecosystems, but we can’t do that without sufficient data. This legislation will help us secure the studies and science we need to put long-term plans into action and ensure our saline lakes ecosystem remains healthy for generations to come.”

Lake Abert, Oregon’s largest saline lake, provides habitat for hundreds of thousands of birds and more than 80 species of shorebirds and other waterbirds. It is recognized for its importance as wildlife habitat and unique aquatic ecology, and also for its scenic and cultural values.

Across the globe, alarming stories and photos of drying lakes point to devastating impacts that arise when saline lakes no longer receive needed water flows. In 2019, Utah Great Salt Lake Advisory Council  commissioned two reports, including Consequences of Drying Lake Systems Around the World, which surveyed eight lakes and found significant threats to human health from dust and substantial reductions in jobs, as well as negative impacts to birds and other wildlife. In some cases, the costs of a declining lake have exceeded billions of dollars. The second report took a closer look at Great Salt Lake and determined that with water levels on a sustained downward trend, “further declines, particularly those over a long period, could result in losses totaling $1.69 billion to $2.17 billion per year” for the Utah economy.

“The Great Salt Lake is the largest saline lake in the Western Hemisphere and one of the largest in the world. It is also an iconic and cherished part of Utah,” Senator Romney said. “I’m proud to lead this legislation with Senator Merkley, which will establish a scientific foundation and ongoing monitoring system to inform coordinated management and conservation actions for threatened Great Basin saline lake ecosystems and the communities who depend on them. This legislation should complement and help elevate the work already being done by the State of Utah to understand this key resource and the role it plays as part of the larger landscape.”

Lake levels are declining at these sites and across the West, raising public health, economic, and environmental concerns. Less water means fewer wetlands and the elimination of vital bird habitat, increased salt content threatening the food supply for birds in the lake, and, in several situations, vast areas of dry lakebed, exposing dust that becomes airborne and impacts neighboring communities.

“Saline lakes contribute significantly to local communities and their economies, as well as habitat for millions of birds,” said Marcelle Shoop, Audubon’s Saline Lakes Program Director. “While there have been efforts to study and protect these saline lakes at a local level, this effort also will support birds across the flyway, while benefitting communities locally. Improving our scientific understanding of the hydrology and habitats of these unique natural resources can inform coordinated approaches to management and conservation across the Great Basin.”

Scientific monitoring and assessment of saline lake ecosystems can anticipate changes, inform responses, and promote coordinated management of a region-wide network of saline lakes across the Great Basin. Birds use these lakes as stopover sites to rest and refuel during spring and fall migration as they traverse the arid West.

Audubon’s research demonstrates that while each saline lake and surrounding watershed is its own unique ecosystem, together these lakes function as a critical network for birds as they migrate across the West each spring and fall. Saline lakes provide specialized habitat for globally significant populations of several bird species including: more than 99 percent of North America’s Eared Grebes, 90 percent of Wilson’s Phalaropes and more than half the global population of American Avocets depend on this network. Many of these lakes and wetlands have shrunk 50 to 95 percent over the last 150 years due to water diversions, drought, and a changing climate.

Maintaining healthy bird populations, while balancing community needs, depends on proactively studying and managing these unique habitats amid increasing water demands and an increasingly arid climate. As it is imperative that we plan for the long-term so that we can protect people, birds, and the places they need—this USGS integrated program would be a great start and Audubon is ready to work with USGS and other partners on the implementation of this assessment.