By LEIA LARSEN • Standard-Examiner staff
PAISLEY, OREGON — Lake Abert sits about 4,260 feet above sea level, in the high-steppe Oregon desert east of the Cascades and far from regular precipitation.
The Abert Rim on the western shore juts nearly 2,500 feet above the valley floor. The ridge effectively dams the water flowing from the Chewaucan River, creating one of the only lakes in Oregon with no outlet.
The lake’s water is alkali — too salty for fish and too harsh for human skin. In this land of extremes, it’s hard to believe anything could be of much worth. Still, life thrives in Lake Abert’s waters.
Back in 1979, Keith Kreuz and a friend from Oregon State University had a hunch about the value of that life and their instinct paid off.
“On a field trip, we happened to see brine shrimp in the lake,” Kreuz said.
The density of the small, fingernail-sized shrimp amazed them.
Kreuz co-founded Oregon Desert Brine Shrimp Co., making a decades-long business out of harvesting the organisms from Lake Abert and selling them as tropical fish food and, later, as feed for commercial seafood farms.
As a mostly one-man operation, Kreuz could harvest as much as 800 pounds of shrimp an hour by dragging two nets on either side of his kitchen table-sized raft.
That is, until 2014, when the lake practically went dry, shrinking to a briny puddle that couldn’t support his business.
The Standard-Examiner is exploring lessons surfaced by the suffering of other saline lakes in the West in order to understand what’s at stake for Northern Utah’s Great Salt Lake. In this case, Kreuz’s troubles portend the impending doom to Utah’s own brine shrimp industry if the Great Salt Lake keeps shrinking.
Harvesting brine shrimp on the Great Salt Lake is not a one-man operation but a multi-million dollar industry that employs hundreds of people in the area.
“People look at saline lakes, especially Lake Abert, as having absolutely no value — no fishing, no swimming, no boating,” Kreuz said. “They see that as water going to waste that they could put on their fields.”
A similar view is taken up by many around the Great Salt Lake. A Weber State University study of human relationships with the Great Salt Lake shows many see the lake as a waste — especially younger generations.
But a white paper from 2016 co-authored by scientists from Utah State University, the Utah Division of Water Resources, Salt Lake Community College and the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources found the Great Salt Lake would be 11 feet higher today if not for diversions.
Agriculture by far consumes the most water. Those diversions alone have lowered the Great Salt Lake by 7 feet.
In Oregon, the conversation about Lake Abert and agricultural impacts created a lot of upset among locals.
A handful of scientists have taken an interest in Lake Abert, researching what’s causing its decline.
Biologist Ron Larson retired from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 2014 and decided he’d spend his energy examining the lake.
He published a study in 2016 that found Lake Abert’s decline couldn’t be blamed on drought alone. The last time the lake went dry was during the 1930s, a once-in-500-years type of drought. The current drought didn’t match those Depression-era conditions.
A big factor affecting the lake, Larson’s study notes, was farmers switching from growing grass to more water-intensive alfalfa, which also has a longer growing season.
The effect has been a double-whammy on the Lake Abert system. Farmers are diverting surface water from the Chewaucan River and tapping more groundwater, which leads to less recharge for the lake and its tributaries.
Lake Abert didn’t just have brine shrimp. When the lake effectively went dry the summers of 2014 and 2015, Larson documented reductions in shorebirds visiting the lake, too. Eared grebes, for example, went from more than 40,000 in 2012 to zero in 2014. Phalaropes dropped from 214,000 to 21,000 over the same period.
Johnnie Moore, professor in the Department of Geoscience at the University of Montana, also conducted a study on the lake’s decline in 2016. He too attributed the drying to agricultural diversions, not drought.
“As population grows, people need more water to grow more food, whether it’s food for cows or food for people, so they withdraw more water,” he said.
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Lake Abert, Oregon
Lake Abert in eastern Oregon nearly dried up in 2014, causing brine shrimp populations to crash and a significant drop in visits from migratory birds.
Mono Lake, California
Mono Lake sits 40 feet lower with half the volume than it would have naturally. Its decline is a result of diversions on the lake’s freshwater tributary streams. Those diversions pipe water 350 miles south down an aqueduct to Los Angeles. But the situation at Mono Lake could’ve been much worse.
Owens Lake, California
Dust billows off the dried bed of Owens Lake in Inyo County, California in March 2010. The lake dried after water diversion from the City of Los Angeles and became the largest source of PM 10 pollution in the United States.
Great Salt Lake, Utah
The decline of Utah’s largest lake, which has no outlet, would have rippling impacts on the area’s wildlife. But waters feeding the lake are important for the state’s agricultural industry, too.
Explore our series "Losing the Great Salt Lake" to find out more.
Lahontan Wetlands, Nevada
Like the Great Salt Lake, the Lahontan wetlands are recognized as a site of hemispheric importance for migrating waterfowl and shorebirds, supporting populations of American avocets, American white pelicans and white-faced ibis.
“Droughts are becoming longer and deeper, then of course you need more water to grow crops, to keep things alive, to produce more food.”
Last winter’s colossal snowpack brought water once again to Lake Abert. The lake is up five feet — brine shrimp are back — but impacts linger. Larson guesses it will get harder and harder for the populations to bounce back after every dry period.
Managers at the Great Salt Lake worry about the same thing. Utah got a boost from an epic winter as well, but the Great Salt Lake is only about a foot higher than it was a year ago, when it likely hit a record low. *
“I know the lake fluctuates ... but the trend has shifted way down,” said John Luft with the Great Salt Lake Ecosystem Program.
The Great Salt Lake is vast, covering 1,700 square miles — but it’s shallow. The long-term average elevation only shifted down about 5 feet, according Luft, but the less water there is in the lake, the saltier it gets. Brine shrimp can only handle so much salt.
Luft’s program plays an important role in managing the lake’s health, monitoring salinity, chemistry, temperature, brine shrimp populations and tracking bird migrations. It’s entirely funded by royalties from brine shrimp harvests.
Luft said he regularly talks to scientists working at disappearing saline lakes throughout the West. He worries about the toll of Utahns’ water use.
“It’s similar all around the world, you reach a certain point, people realize how bad it is, people want to recover it,” he said. “But it’s much harder to recover it than to stop it from happening in the first place.”
* NOTE: A paper published this month notes that the Great Salt Lake actually hit a record low in November 2016, when averaging the elevations of the lake's north and south arms.