U.S. Senators Re-Introduce Science-based Program for Unique Saline (Salt) Lake Ecosystems

Audubon science makes case for federally coordinated assessment of interconnected ecosystems essential in the arid West, supporting people and birds.
Eared Grebes with chicks. Wendy Crowe/Audubon Photography Awards

Amid urgent drought conditions across the West, Senator Jeff Merkley (D-OR) and Senator Mitt Romney (R-UT) this week reintroduced bipartisan legislation this week reintroduced bipartisan legislation to advance the scientific foundation needed to benefit saline lakes and their wetlands in the Great Basin, including lakes such as Lake Abert in Oregon and Great Salt Lake in Utah. Building upon scientific findings that saline lakes across the West provide interconnected bird habitats—as documented in Audubon’s Water and Birds in the Arid West report S.1466, Saline Lake Ecosystems in the Great Basin States Program Act of 2021 will establish a program within the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) to assess, monitor, and benefit the hydrology of saline lakes and the migratory birds and other wildlife that depend on them.

In the arid West, saline lakes and their wetlands provide irreplaceable habitats that support millions of migrating shorebirds, waterfowl, and other waterbirds. Saline lakes, or “terminal” lakes, often sit at the lowest elevation in the region in closed basins, meaning that surface water that flows in does not flow out. These lakes provide economic, recreational, public health, and community benefits.

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’s Great Salt Lake Advisory Council commissioned a report to understand the Consequences of Drying Lake Systems Around the World. The report found that drying lakes cause 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.

Unfortunately, saline lakes in the West are also at risk because of declines in water availability due to water demand, diversions, drought, and increasing climatic stresses. The drying of these lake systems will adversely affect habitat and food sources for migratory birds and other wildlife. In addition, as the lakes dry, wind-borne dust can jeopardize public health of local communities.

Audubon’s research demonstrates that while each saline lake and surrounding watershed is its own unique ecosystem, together these lakes function as a 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.

The Saline Lake Ecosystems in the Great Basin States Program Act of 2021 authorizes $25 million over five years for the USGS to:

  • identify the scientific needs and develop an action plan for a multi-year program to monitor and assess Great Basin saline lake ecosystems and the wildlife that depend on them;
  • work closely with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and other federal, tribal, state, and local governments; research universities; non-profit organizations; and other partners to design and implement this program;
  • guide initial efforts to focus on a subset of the saline lakes and their wetlands, known to be of paramount importance in this Great Basin network; and
  • conduct stakeholder outreach, develop water budgets with surface and groundwater inputs and outputs, and install data collection systems for integrated hydrologic and ecological monitoring to support the assessment of lake water budgets and the vulnerability of migratory bird populations.

Maintaining healthy bird populations while balancing community needs depends on proactively studying and developing coordinated management actions for these unique habitats amid increasing water demands and an increasingly arid climate. It is imperative that we plan for the long-term so that we can protect people, birds, and the places they need. Audubon thanks Senators Merkley and Romney for their leadership and is ready to work with members of Congress and the USGS to pass this important legislation. We look forward to working with partners on the implementation of this program.