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Encore: A vital lake in Oregon, around for eons, could run dry within a generation

DANIEL ESTRIN, HOST:

In southern Oregon's high desert, an ancient lake attracts waterbirds from around the world. But now this prized wetland is in danger of disappearing. From Oregon Public Broadcasting, Emily Cureton Cook reports.

(SOUNDBITE OF WATER BUBBLING)

EMILY CURETON COOK, BYLINE: Cool, clean water bubbles up from the ground about 80 miles from where the borders of Oregon, Nevada and California meet. This groundwater is the lifeblood of Summer Lake Wildlife Area. The 19,000-acre public preserve hosts millions of migratory birds annually.

MARTY ST LOUIS: We're right here in the Pacific flyway. These are the main pathways that birds move north and south across North America.

CURETON COOK: Biologist Marty St. Louis was an Oregon state wildlife manager here for more than 30 years.

(SOUNDBITE OF SWANS COOING)

ST LOUIS: Those are tundra swans.

CURETON COOK: Tundra swans.

ST LOUIS: They used to be called whistling swans.

(SOUNDBITE OF CRANES CHIRPING)

ST LOUIS: Now here's a pair of sandhill cranes. They're just letting you know.

(SOUNDBITE OF GEESE HONKING)

ST LOUIS: And do you see this white out here? Snow geese - 10 to 15,000 of them.

CURETON COOK: Without groundwater, all this would go silent. State records show the springs feeding the lake have been steadily declining ever since people started pumping groundwater to nearby hay farms. State scientists have long believed that agriculture would eventually dry out the springs.

LISA BROWN: That got my attention.

CURETON COOK: Lisa Brown is an environmental advocate and an attorney for the nonprofit WaterWatch.

BROWN: It's alarming that we have a plan in place in Oregon to basically dry up Summer Lake.

DOUG WOODCOCK: That's just the nature of groundwater hydrology.

CURETON COOK: Doug Woodcock is a deputy director at the Oregon Water Resources Department.

WOODCOCK: The department does have a charge to manage the area sustainably. And as we can get to it, we will.

CURETON COOK: But the water department still hasn't defined what reasonably stable groundwater levels are even though a law saying it had to was passed in the 1950s. And state policies don't consider the effects of human-caused climate change. Dan Jansen is a hay farmer near Summer Lake who wants to conserve more water voluntarily and avoid a crackdown on his water rights.

DAN JANSEN: If we get cut back here, it's going to be devastating. I mean, this would be a ghost town, nothing but blowing sand here.

CURETON COOK: These intense winds and extreme temperatures batter his home in Christmas Valley, Ore., where few crops will grow. But the harsh conditions are part of what makes alfalfa hay actually thrive.

JANSEN: This is the best climate probably in the world for this crop.

CURETON COOK: Jansen says the international demand is strong, especially from buyers in Asia.

JANSEN: And now we're starting to get a lot of Middle East countries that are buying because they don't have any water to grow it.

CURETON COOK: Long before Oregon created a wildlife area or hay farm sprouted up around it, Northern Paiute people have lived, hunted and fished at the lake.

WILSON WEWA: Our people have always utilized that area. And it has spiritual significance.

CURETON COOK: Wilson Wewa is a Northern Paiute historian.

WEWA: So if anybody has a right to the land and its resources, it's Native people.

CURETON COOK: But the state allows farmers to take more and more water, which leaves Wewa asking...

WEWA: How much is enough?

CURETON COOK: He worries that unless Oregon's water managers change course, in just a few decades, a supply that's been stable for millennia could be lost forever. For NPR News, I'm Emily Cureton Cook in Summer Lake, Ore.

(SOUNDBITE OF LITTLE DRAGON SONG, "FEATHER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.