Where Did All the Water Go?

Malheur Lake Water Conditions

Drought is a natural part of the climate cycle in the Northern Great Basin. Birds and other wildlife living in this area easily adapt to these changing conditions. Visitors will find greater concentrations of bird species near available water.

Precipitation across most of Oregon was at or near the 30 year average during the 2014-2015 winter, however warmer than normal winter conditions resulted in less snow accumulation at higher elevations. 
Snow pack on Steens Mountain fuels the Blitzen River, creeks, wetlands and ponds on the refuge. Unfortunately the 2014-15 winter snow pack was less than 50% of normal, so the refuge is receiving significantly less water than normal.
The Refuge develops a water management plan each year for the use of water across the refuge. This includes maintaining appropriate flows in the Blitzen River for native fish; filling ponds and reservoirs on the refuge for open water habitat; maintaining wetlands at appropriate levels for habitat; and irrigation of meadow habitat. This year’s priorities were 1) adequate flows for native fish in the Blitzen River and East Canal, 2) supplying water to ponds and wetlands that provide the highest quality habitat for dense concentrations of birds (many of these are in areas not visible to visitors), 3) meadow habitat near diversion points on the river and canals, and 4) diversion of water to meadow habitat distant from diversion points as flows in the river allow. 
Maintaining adequate flows in the Blitzen River for native fish has increased the size of Malheur Lake from last year’s low of 10,000 acres to about 15,000 acres. Unfortunately warmer temperatures combined with wind will cause evaporation of lake water and result in decreased water levels on the lake. Poor water quality as a result of invasive common carp will continue to create poor habitat conditions on Malheur Lake. Native fish will continue to be concentrated in the river and tributaries.
Refuge staff are seeing denser concentrations of birds using the priority ponds and wetlands and water levels will be maintained at optimum levels as long as supplies are available. Open water habitat is essential for duck broods, trumpeter swans and other waterbirds until fledging occurs. The refuge began filling these important ponds, wetlands and reservoirs in late winter, so nesting birds have settled into these areas in denser concentrations and should be success. Unfortunately many of these areas are not visible to visitors, so it may appear that there are fewer birds using the refuge.