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Integrated science strategy for assessing and monitoring water availability and migratory birds for terminal lakes across the Great Basin, United States

December 22, 2023

Executive Summary

In 2022, the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) established the Saline Lake Ecosystems Integrated Water Availability Assessment (IWAAs) to monitor and assess the hydrology of terminal lakes in the Great Basin and the migratory birds and other wildlife dependent on those habitats. Scientists from across the USGS (with specialties in water quantity, water quality, limnology, avian biology, data science, landscape ecology, and science communication) formed the Saline Lake Ecosystems IWAAs Team. The team has developed this regional strategic science plan to guide data collection and assessment activities at terminal lakes in the Great Basin.

The U.S. Congress requested the USGS to establish the Saline Lake Ecosystems IWAAs in response to historically low water levels at terminal lakes and associated wetlands across the Great Basin. Not all Great Basin terminal lakes have high salinity; however, all terminal lakes occur in endorheic, closed, basins with no surface-water outflow. Low lake levels across the Great Basin are the result of increased water use for agriculture and municipalities, drought conditions, and a warming climate. Great Basin terminal lake water extents have decreased by as much as 90 percent over the last 150 years, and terminal lake wetlands have decreased in area by as much as 47 percent since 1984. Lake elevations and wetland areas are primarily supported by freshwater inputs from snowmelt feeding upgradient rivers, streams, and springs. These freshwater inputs have been severely reduced because of continued and increased surface-water diversions and surface-water capture through groundwater pumping for agriculture, mining, and public supply as well as unprecedented drought conditions and warming temperatures related to climate change.

Water quality, specifically salinity, is highly variable for terminal lakes of the Great Basin, and this variability is a result of the balance between freshwater inflow and evaporation. Variability of salinity at each of the terminal lakes can be affected by lake morphology, hydrogeologic features of the basin, annual variability in weather patterns, and changes in upgradient water use. Hypersaline terminal lakes provide abundant food resources such as brine shrimp and brine flies that support nesting and migrating birds. The density and composition of invertebrates are closely tied to lake salinity. Increased salinity can exceed the tolerance of invertebrates, severely limiting their biomass. In contrast, decreased salinity can lead to altered invertebrate community composition, reducing the abundance of optimal avian prey resources.

Great Basin terminal lake ecosystems, including open-water and adjacent aquatic and terrestrial environments, provide resources necessary to sustain many animal populations throughout the year. Although a variety of taxa use terminal lakes, these ecosystems are of acute importance for the millions of migratory waterbirds (for example, shorebirds, wading birds, and waterfowl) dependent on the network of terminal lakes and their associated wetlands. Migratory birds transiting the Pacific and Central Flyways use Great Basin terminal lake ecosystems throughout the year to feed, nest, and transit between wintering and breeding ranges. As such, successful conservation of birds and their habitats requires coordinated management of water and habitats across the Great Basin network of terminal lakes and wetlands.

The linkages between water availability and ecosystem vulnerability of terminal lakes in the Great Basin are not well understood. The vulnerability of terminal lakes is related to the factors driving change and adaptive capacity of the lake ecosystem. Saline lake ecosystems are vulnerable when changes in water quantity affect ecosystem function. Water quantity affects salinity, which affects food webs and habitat; these linkages can be investigated with water-quality and food web monitoring. Water quantity also affects inundated habitat, which can be quantified through remote sensing. It is necessary to quantify hydroclimatic and water use controls on water availability to terminal lakes to assess the response of the ecosystems. Remotely sensed data can provide a broad-scale and long-term synoptic view of terminal lake hydrologic characteristics, but ground observations are required to interpret changes in water quality and ecological functions. Some terminal lake basins have ongoing monitoring and modeling efforts within the Great Basin (for example, Great Salt Lake, Carson River Basin), yet most monitoring locations are hydrologically upgradient and too far away from lake inflows to provide an accurate assessment of hydrological trends for the lake ecosystems. Other terminal lakes have no long-term hydrological monitoring in their respective watersheds (for example, Lake Abert).

Ecological data collection in the Great Basin is also insufficient to understand how many birds exist on the landscape, how birds use the mosaic of terminal-lake habitats as an interconnected system, and how Great Basin terminal lakes are linked to the larger continental system of the Pacific and Central Flyways. Across agencies and organizations, tracking bird movement, abundance, and diversity is inconsistent, with some lakes having once- or twice-a-year bird survey efforts and a few locations having more intensive ecological data-gathering efforts (for example, Great Salt Lake, Lake Abert). Bridging hydrological and ecological information gaps will improve understanding of the trends in water supply and water quality, habitat availability and usage, and impacts on vulnerable waterbird species, all of which would be used by managers in coordinated conservation of this unique network of terminal-lake habitats.

The terminal lakes of the Great Basin are part of the Basin and Range physiographic province that extends from the Colorado Plateau on the east to the Sierra Nevada on the west, and from the Snake River Plain on the north to the Garlock fault and the Mojave block on the south. The Great Basin is larger than 650,000 square kilometers and encompasses most of the State of Nevada but also extends to western Utah, eastern California, southeastern Idaho, southwestern Wyoming, and southeastern Oregon. The climate is arid to semiarid with a hydrologic regime that is snowmelt dominated, providing as much as 75 percent of total annual runoff for the region. Terminal lakes of the Great Basin occupy the lowest areas of closed (endorheic) drainage basins, such that lake levels and water quality respond rapidly to surface-water inflow. Terminal lakes provide local and regional economic value to the States in the Great Basin, including mineral extraction, aquaculture, public works, and recreational uses. As an example, assessments of Great Salt Lake’s ecological health and economic impact find hemispheric importance for the former and regional importance for the latter. Great Salt Lake creates about 7,000 jobs and $2 billion of economic output per year, most of which would be lost with further declines in lake level.

The objectives of this Science Strategy are threefold: (1) to identify how changing water availability affects the quality, diversity, and abundance of habitats supporting continental waterbird populations; (2) to highlight the scientific monitoring and assessment needs of Great Basin terminal lakes; and (3) to support coordinated management and conservation actions to benefit those ecosystems, migratory birds, and other wildlife. There are long-term hydrological, ecological, and societal challenges associated with terminal lakes ecosystems in the Great Basin. This Science Strategy benefits partners by providing a conceptual model, nested at different spatial extents, that identifies key scientific information needs to inform coordinated implementation of management and conservation plans within and among hydrologic basins to address these complex challenges.

Publication Year 2023
Title Integrated science strategy for assessing and monitoring water availability and migratory birds for terminal lakes across the Great Basin, United States
DOI 10.3133/cir1516
Authors Rebecca J. Frus, Cameron L. Aldridge, Michael L. Casazza, Collin A. Eagles-Smith, Garth Herring, Scott A. Hynek, Daniel K. Jones, Susan K Kemp, Thomas M. Marston, Christopher M. Morris, Ramon C. Naranjo, Cee Nell, David R. O'Leary, Cory T. Overton, Bryce A. Pulver, Brian E. Reichert, Christine A. Rumsey, Rudy Schuster, Cassandra D. Smith
Publication Type Report
Publication Subtype USGS Numbered Series
Series Title Circular
Series Number 1516
Index ID cir1516
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Forest and Rangeland Ecosystem Science Center