A Crime Against Nature

Imagine running one of the great American marathons. Or, if you are in the kind of shape I am in, imagine jogging, then walking, and in the end possibly crawling to the finish line of an American marathon. Whatever your condition, by the time you reach the finish line you’d be in dire need of fluids, food and rest. Stillwater Marsh – for waterfowl and shorebirds enduring the marathon we call migration – is one such finish line. But now imagine that, after giving your all for twenty-six miles, you’re greeted at the finish by a sign that read:


David James Duncan, My Life As Told by Water, “Patching the Pacific Flyway,” p. 125.

David James Duncan is one of WC’s favorite writers. What he describes as happening to Stillwater Marsh, in western Nevada in the 1990s, is happening today to Abert Lake. It’s being turned from Oregon’s largest saline lake into a dry, desiccated salt flat, its natural water sources consumed by human uses.

Abert Lake, a 65 square mile saline lake in south central Oregon, is a critically important stop in the Western Flyway, used by hundreds of thousands of birds migrating to and from their breeding grounds further north. The springs around the edge of the lake, beneath the towering Abert Rim, are a source fresh water in the high desert. But the main source of water is the Chewaucan River, which empties into Abert Lake’s southerly end. Like the Great Salt Lake, Abert Lake is a land-locked basin and saline, but those saline waters support high densities for brine shrimp and flies, critical food sources for the energy-depleted birds. The mud flats in the shallow lake give them a safe place to rest.

Well, the lake used to do all that.

Abert [Lake] Salt Pan, Mid-July, 2022

The lake is mostly gone now, desiccated, dried up, a victim of the West’s endless water wars. This is a new development. When WC and Mrs. WC explored the area in 1997, the big, blue lake with its white, salt-crusted rim was intact, nestled against the base of the Abert Rim, which towers 1,500-2,000 feet above the lake. Except for a narrow band of shallow water at the north end, it’s a salt flat now. The remaining tiny areas of water are too hyper-saline to support life. The food sources are gone.

Abert Lakebed, looking north; Abert Rim on the right

The farmers blame the lake’s condition on the drought, but there have been droughts before and Abert Lake, while it shrank in size, didn’t die. Only during the Dust Bowl did it vanish, and it returned the next year. But in the late 1990s, a dam was built on the Chewaucan River, the primary source of fresh water to Abert Lake. The dam is just a few hundred yards before the lake, at River’s End Ranch. Incredibly, the dam was funded in part by the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. An agreement to share the waters of the Chewaucan River fell apart. No river water goes to the lake. And the lake is almost completely dry as a result.

As seems to be the case with most western rivers, rights to the waters of the Chewaucan are over-committed; more is promised than is available. In low water years, it creates a crisis, and the ecosystems that depend on the water always lose. It adds more stress to a damaged planet, all so more hay and grass can be grown, to graze more cattle, to make more hamburger. It’s stupid, utterly unnecessary and, sooner rather than later, is going to bring the whole system crashing around our ears. The Portland Oregonian did a nice report on the political mess that’s involved in this crime against nature. It’s worth a read. The Oregon DEQ is revealed as a the problem, not the solution.

There are promises to do better. Enough promises to fill the lake. But the lake remains bone dry as fall migration begins.

5 thoughts on “A Crime Against Nature

  1. I really like this post. The analogy is spot on. I see a share button at the end of the post so I hope it is safe to assume that it’s okay to post it to Twitter in hopes that someone who does not currently belong to “the choir” (dare we hope it might be someone from a politician’s family will?) will be moved to take some sort of peaceful but meaningful action by that analogy.


  2. I like to think of these sorts of issues in short-term geologic time. Edward Abbey used to write about how dams will all inevitably silt up, become waterfalls, then breach. It takes a few hundred or thousands of years but it will happen and any folly that we have caused and experienced will be self-corrected.


    • You’re right that they will eventually resolve, but wrong about the interval. With the kind of damage humans are inflicting, the Sixth Extinction, it will be millions of years, not thousands, before the planet recovers. And it will be a very different place when it does. Among the changes: it may no longer include humans.


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