Like ruins from ancient peoples, dozens of nests still hold together, relics of a life now gone. Their tops are carved down from relentless prairie winds.
Double-crested cormorants, prehistoric-looking birds with big feathered eyebrows during mating season, built the nests with mud and sticks. Water surrounded the birds, protecting them from predators. Local birders would watch the gaggle of cormorants from dozens of yards away.
California gulls, Caspian terns and black-crowned night herons nested around the cormorants in a hierarchy of birds.
In the summer, mud flats offered a buffet of worms and other insects for shore birds like sandpipers, avocets and black-necked stilts.
Now, the soccer-ball-sized nests on the top of a hill are the only indication a colony of cormorants was once there. The birds left, chased away by foxes when retreating water exposed their nests. Sometime later, even the predators moved on.
Where northern pintail, mallard and blue-winged teal ducks once filled the sky, only stillness remains.
Climbing out of his old white 4-Runner in late July, geologist and Audubon Rockies member Bart Rea shook his head the same way he has for the last several years. He pointed to former islands and channels, now dry, rolling nubs in the sage brush.
“Maybe five years ago I saw them, the whole area was nothing but water and there were thousands, literally tens of thousands of ducks during the fall migration,” Rea said.
The migration should have started already, but instead of thousands of ducks and other birds, he spotted one raven. The prairie is reabsorbing what was once, for however briefly, one of the most important stopover points in the Wyoming portion of the Central Flyway, a corridor providing habitat for countless migrating birds.
Local birders called Soda Lake, several miles north of Casper, a jewel and a gold mine. Children and college students saw their first rare birds at the man-made lake, and budding birders fell in love with the sport by its shores. After more than 50 years of pumping water and refinery waste into the lake, current owner BP America Inc. formally decided to stop. Broken pipes presented costly fixes, so BP officials plan to invest in other wetland projects in the area. Local birders say little could replace Soda Lake’s combination of size, food production and location for attracting birds. But, they remain cautiously optimistic that other projects could help bring some of the Central Flyway’s gems back to central Wyoming.
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Soda Lake sits bordered by the city landfill, a pipeyard and a utility corridor of power lines and pipelines. Before the waste, the water and the eventual flood of migratory waterfowl, the Soda Lake area was a playa, a dry lake that filled seasonally with rain and then evaporated.
In 1957, Casper’s refinery, at the time owned by American Oil Co., started pumping refinery waste into the isolated, ephemeral lake in anticipation of new clean water rules that would stop the refinery from dumping chemical sludge into the North Platte River.
Waste left the refinery in pipes and wound its way underground and into a 40-acre “settling basin,” Rea said.
“All the nasty heavy metals and all kinds of hydrocarbon compounds settled in the inlet basin and evaporated,” he said. “It smelled horrible and hardly any bird would go near it.”
But, cleaner water from the top went through a syphon under a dike and into the main lake. More than 600 acres when full, the main lake was never more than about 15 feet deep. Evaporation caused slight fluctuations in the water levels and also led to brine shrimp and other tasty invertebrates.
Birds keyed in on the water, a replacement for so many smaller stopover points drained and dried by Western development, said Brian Rutledge, executive director of Audubon Rockies.
The refinery closed in 1991, but then-owner Amoco continued pumping clean water into the lake. Birds kept coming, vegetation bloomed and pronghorn continued to graze, Rea said.
By the mid-1990s, Amoco needed to clean up the chemical waste that had been settling in the bottom of Soda Lake’s retention pond. Amoco sold the property to BP, which was then saddled with the costly remediation.
BP officials embraced the effort, not only cleaning the area, but creating islands, trenches and other bird-friendly infrastructure, Rea said.
“I have no idea how much money they spent,” Rea said. “But it was considerable.”
Birds responded to the changes and numbers and the variety of species grew even more. What started as a chemical sludge pond became home to osprey, peregrine falcons, white-faced ibis, northern pintails and one of the largest nesting colonies of Caspian terns in the country.
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Ann Hines first went to Soda Lake as a novice and has spotted 80 bird species for the first time there. It was a gold mine, a birder’s paradise.
More than numbers, Hines appreciated the educational potential Soda Lake offered. She and other birders like Rea brought classrooms to the lake’s shores. Students ranging from elementary school to college made the trek to see birds rarely spotted anywhere else in Wyoming. Birders from across the globe came after reading pioneer-birder Oliver Scott’s book on Wyoming birds.
In 2008, it started to dry.
“The pipeline was found to have deteriorated significantly,” wrote BP officials in a statement to the Star-Tribune, sent by Brett Clanton, a press officer for BP America Inc.
Officials examined the 4.7-mile-long pipeline and concluded repairs would cost millions of dollars and disrupt a significant land area. The company decided it would not replace the line and would stop pumping water to Soda Lake, according to the statement.
What was once more than 600 acres is now less than 200, Rea estimates.
Hines hasn’t been out in months, it’s too depressing.
Rea doesn’t go out much either, after spending the past four years trying to convince someone that Soda Lake is worth saving.
“I like birds, but I’m not a fanatical birder,” Rea said. “I look at them as an integral part of nature.”
He still carries binoculars in his 4-Runner and can identify most birds he sees. At 82, he works as a geologist and chose Soda Lake as his personal crusade.
“I’m kind of a maverick. A geologist who is a conservationist is somewhat unusual and a conservationist who is a geologist is even more unusual,” he said. “So I am suspect on both sides, but the nice thing is I can talk to both sides.”
He spent hours poring over old surveying documents trying to find wells or other sources of water in the area. Perhaps bird enthusiasts and BP officials could find a compromise with Soda Lake, he wondered. Instead of 600 acres, maybe the company could pump 400 acres worth of water, enough to keep the lake and surrounding wetlands alive.
In a late-August meeting, after months of phone calls and negotiations, Audubon and BP officials did find some kind of compromise.
“They’re going to let Soda Lake dry up,” said Brian Rutledge, the executive director of Audubon Rockies.
Some of BP’s water rights will return to the city of Casper, no longer needed for remediation.
“These water rights are significant and allow local government entities, citizens and stakeholders in the greater Casper area, and not BP, to determine the most beneficial use of this valuable resource,” a statement from BP read.
The story doesn’t necessarily end with a dry lake.
“We remain open to supporting other wildlife projects in the greater Casper area,” BP’s statement continued.
BP officials are waiting for Rutledge and others with Audubon Rockies to present the company with wetland projects. No money has been allocated, but funding will be decided once projects are identified, Clanton wrote in an email.
Rutledge plans to present BP with options by the end of the year. He remains cautiously optimistic.
“It probably makes sense in the long run to bring back some natural wetlands rather than the artificial ones,” he said.
However he worries that the birds who once called Soda Lake home – Caspian terns, double-crested cormorants and black-crowned herons – have been lost to that area for good.
No projects or enhancements will replace Soda Lake’s wide expanse, but several improved wetlands could become additional stopover points on the Central Flyway.
Rea’s personal crusade with Soda Lake is ending. He doesn’t know when or if he’ll go back to Soda Lake. Perhaps he’ll become involved in the proposed projects and focus on improving other wetlands.
As a member of the Audubon Society since fourth grade, he isn’t ready to give up on Wyoming’s birds.