Harney Basin

Harney Basin is a geologic and topographic basin in southeast Oregon; while it sits adjacent to the northwest corner of the Great Basin, it is separated from that province by the massive fault-block of the Steens Mountain ridge. On its north side, the Harney Basin is bordered by the southern edge of the Blue Mountains while a high lava plain separates the basin from the watersheds of the John Day and Klamath Rivers to the northwest and southwest, respectively.

During warm interglacial periods of the Pleistocene, glacial meltwater from the adjacent highlands filled the Harney Basin, spilling northeastward into the Malheur River, a tributary of the Snake River. Today, as the climate has warmed through the Holocene, the floor of Harney Basin has become a high desert, receiving only 6 inches of precipitation each year; a low divide along the basin's northeast edge, formerly a spillway, now completes the basin topography and all streams flow inward toward Harney and Malheur Lakes, on the basin's floor. Burns, Oregon, is the only sizable town in this remote, high desert basin.

While most of the basin floor is high and dry, with elevations between 4000 and 5200 feet, Malheur Lake, fed by the Silvies River from the Blue Mountains and the Blitzen River from Steens Mountain, provides a rich and welcome oasis for migrant waterfowl, shorebirds, white pelicans and sandhill cranes. Home to many other species as well, the lake and its wetlands are protected as the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge; during seasons with heavy precipitation or snowmelt, Malheur Lake spills west toward Harney Lake, an ephemeral, salt pan lake that is the topographic sink of Harney Basin.