Secret Pools in the Oregon Desert Are Magnets for All Kinds of Thirsty Animals

Created by the government more than half a century ago, the ‘guzzlers’ are kept running by volunteers set on bringing life to the withering outback.

At first glance, the guzzlers aren't much to look at. Shallow, concrete, and crassly dug into the desert, the modest pools—each less than two feet wide—lie in the Oregon Outback, where cattle outnumber people. The first is exposed to the flat sky and country; the second one sits about a football field's distance down, past an old lava drop, in a thick pocket of sagebrush, rabbitbrush, and bitterbrush. 

Sandwiched between Oregon's ponderosa pines and a dense sagebrush sea, the pools support both desert and woodland animals. On any given day, wild visitors to the watering holes include raptors, badgers, bats, cottontails, weasels, and an endless cacophony of birds.

“Everything likes a guzzler,” says retired Forest Service employee Don Franks, 95, who lives just 10 miles away in the town of Fort Rock. For decades, he's maintained these watering holes, officially known as “wildlife guzzlers” because of how the animals drink greedily from them. 

Guzzler plumbing is simple and familiar, Franks says: “It’s just like the toilet in your house.” Each pool is fed by rain and snowmelt collected in barn-roof frames, then funneled into an underground tank. Water dribbles into the cement basin through the same kind of valve that keeps water in a toilet bowl steady. “If birds use a quart of water, a quart of water flows back in,” Franks says.

This constant recharge is important in the high desert, where pretty much everyone is looking for a drink. Rugged Greater Sage-grouse can quench their thirst by nibbling off shrubs, but most of the region's inhabitants require open water sources. The guzzlers near Fort Rock were built by the U.S. Forest Service in the mid-1900s, particularly to support songbirds. Located about 150 miles east of Malheur Wildlife Refuge, the pools sit in a natural oasis known as Cabin Lake, which once sustained prehistoric camels, mammoths, bison, and flamingos. But the water evaporated centuries ago, Franks says, resulting in the supine desert basin that we see today. Unlike the lush, old-growth forests on the Oregon coast, the central part of the state currently gets just 10 or so inches of rain each year.

Now, hundreds of guzzlers exist in all Oregon counties southeast of the Blue Mountains—and they're not just limited to the state, either. To help hydrate wildlife in the American West, the government began strategically installing the plumbing systems in low-water zones in the late 1940s. The first one was built in California for local quail populations, and was named “Gladin's Gallinaceous Guzzler.” No one knows how far the program extends or how many guzzlers have been created so far; in Nevada alone there are more than 1,600.

Over the years, however, the government’s funding for the program began to dry up. To keep the pools from drying up as well, local residents took the stewardship upon themselves, often getting the needed supplies from agencies. Franks, who now works as a maintenance man for Fort Rock’s Homestead Museumhas spent the past few decades hauling water out to 11 different guzzlers when the tanks empty out in summer, fixing the valves when they freeze for winter, mending fencing to deter roving cows, and cleaning up occasional vandalism.

Thanks to his back-breaking labor, the guzzlers near Fort Rock are always in good condition and have become a birding hotspot. Troops of birders will often stop in the area for lunch while traveling through the outback. About 30 years ago, the local East Cascades Audubon Society (ECAS) set up a wooden bird-watching blind in front of the more southern pool. (The other one also has a makeshift blind that was erected back when it was dug out.) Out-of-town and international naturalists stream in to photograph local specialties like Red Crossbills, Western Bluebirds, and hazy-blue Pinyon Jays. In May of last year, the Audubon chapter spotted a Bald Eagle; in October, a Northern Pygmy-Owl. At night, three species of bats, including the dwindling long-eared myotis, descend upon the pools. 

“Cabin Lake's are vastly different from the typical guzzler,” says Nancy Bruenner, who heads up one of many “Adopt A Guzzler” programs for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW). (Currently, about 30 volunteers are involved around the state.) Most guzzlers are much bigger—up to 10 or 30 feet across—and are often supported by hunting chapters, with the purpose of providing water for migrating mule deer, upland game birds, and antelope, Bruenner says.

In fact, many of the projects were first funded by hunting and fishing taxes and licenses. “It was all sportsman dollars,” says ODFW Lakeview District biologist Craig Foster. He adds that the main driver for the program was the decline in mule deer—a top game animal—during the 1950s. After all, “hunters made up the majority of conservation community back then,” says Todd Forbes, field manager for the Bureau of Land Management Lakeview District.

Today, hunters are prohibited from camping out within 300 feet of the water sources, Bruenner says. “These are for supporting wildlife, not for hunting at.” It’s for this very reason that the statewide guzzler map is largely kept secret. Keeping the coordinates under wraps also helps prevent teens from offroading and engaging in any other disruptive behavior around the sites.

The locations are a mystery even to the guzzler buffs. “Every once in awhile I’ll accidently find a new one,” Franks says. “They’re not necessarily visible from the road, so they can go unnoticed for years.”

More than 70 years after the first watering hole was created, the guzzler program is badly in need of a lift. It's been 15 years since the government agencies sat down to discuss new avenues for funding, Bruenner says. And while they've acknowledged that a consistent budget is needed for proper upkeep of existing guzzlers, the funding never arrived. In Central Oregon, money has largely shifted to mitigating forest fires in recent drought-stricken years. This makes the role of the volunteers all the more essential, Bruenner says.

Earlier this year, Don Franks stepped down from his self-created position as the Cabin Lake guzzler steward, handing the reins off to fellow local Tom Lawler, the conservation committee chair for ECAS. “I don't know much of the history of the place," Lawler says. "I just take care of it because I like it so much." 

Deep in the Oregon Outback, every person and drop counts in keeping the guzzlers alive. So much so that on the Forest Service’s online description of the Cabin Lake blinds, they make one small plea to potential visitors: “Bring a filled water container to replenish the drink basin.”